BY Jim Harding
Prime Minister Harper uses the terms “crime” and “terror” like blunt instruments. What if pseudo-weather forecasters tried to understand all the variations of rain, fog, snow, ice, clouds, drought and flooding with only one notion! Effective policy-making couldn’t come of this.
But understanding doesn’t matter. Harper has a crude political purpose. As the credibility of the petro economy began to slide, along with the price of oil, and this undermined Harper’s image as a strong economic manager, he quickly shifted the narrative to fighting crime and terror. For him these wedge issues are always on standby.
This in the aftermath of several killings by violent, deranged and desperate lone wolves spouting a distorted “Islamism” in the West. And while public support for an in-depth inquiry into the 1,200 murdered or missing indigenous women continued to grow, Harper had other plans; with an election coming he wasn’t going to “commit sociology”.
In the name of protecting our liberties Harper launched Bill C-51 – national security legislation that goes far beyond terrorism and could be used on Canadians labelled as threatening the economy. His minister’s guarantee that lawful protests would be protected obscures how the term “lawful” could be used: it would include municipal, provincial as well as federal and criminal law. Protest could be criminalized. New Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief Perry Bellgarde issued the warning to indigenous people who see their duty as protecting the land and water. Environmental activists have also taken note.
There would be no parliamentary oversight of CSIS even though it would now have vast new policing powers. These are some of the powers that were taken away from the RCMP’s Security and Intelligence (S & I) when it broke the law in 1984 and CSIS was created. Bill C-51 would give judges powers to secretly legalize breaches of Charter Rights. A Supreme Court challenge is inevitable. A long line of critics including several past prime ministers have called for a total recasting of this legislation. However the Conservative dominated Parliamentary Standing Committee refused to let the Canadian Bar, the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, or Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, testify.
THE LOW ROAD
Harper is taking the morally low road. If he is able to win the 2015 election, Canada will become even more unrecognizable to us. It is therefore vital to know just how we got to this lowest of low points in our history. The manipulation of law and order has always been Harper’s standby wedge issue. Though Canada’s crime rate has fallen since the 1960s, Harper has shamelessly exploited the fear of crime. This can divert from other issues and always helps with fund-raising from his base.
Harper goes back and forth with ease between being tough-on-crime and tough-on-terror. When Bill C-51 was under the gun he turned to his crime agenda, announcing legislation where “life means life”. This would affect only a small number of people imprisoned for first degree murder; existing dangerous offender legislation could be used to overrule any possible parole. But the optics mattered.
USING GUN CONTROL
For a decade Harper has relentlessly fueled the politics of fear. His vociferous attacks on past Liberal governments for being soft on crime and the clever way he linked this to opposition to the gun-registry, has been one of his most successful wedges. The framing of “gun control” as criminalizing hunters and farmers while being soft on “real criminals” helped split the opposition parties while consolidating the Conservative vote. Opposing the long-gun registry has been the Conservative’s “biggest cash cow.” “How else”, one observer has commented, “can Harper pit rural Canada against the urban centres: guns, that’s how.”
Guns helped Harper get to power. Still with a minority government in 2010 he brought the abolition of the long-gun registry to a parliamentary vote. He lost but then was able to fundraise for the 2011 election, when he won his majority. He dragged out the legislative process to do more fund raising. He intentionally polarized and hardened opinion. In this toxic atmosphere voter turn-out fell to an all-time low which also served Harper’s political purposes.
This wedge is always on the back burner, to be stage-managed when Harper desires. The CBC reported on October 17, 2014 that the PMO organized an event in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario so Harper could resurrect “the ghost of the gun registry”. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters were invited. Yet at the start of his talk Harper thanked the federation “for putting this event on”. Only scripted questions were allowed; there were none allowed from journalists. This was all manipulated wedge issue politics.
With Bill C-51 under scrutiny he has again brought the gun issue forward. On March 16, 2015 The National Post reported that at SARM’s 2015 meeting Harper stated that guns are needed “for a certain level of security when you’re a ways from immediate police assistance”. The 75,000 strong, National Firearms Association (NFA) quickly applauded him and the Conservative’s campaign manager sent out another fund-raising email to party supporters. Some opposition MP’s and Canadian Bar members wondered if Harper, the supposed upholder of law and order, wasn’t stooping to vigilante justice to rally the troops.
SOFT ON CRIME
Lawrence Martin’s 2011 book Harperland traces the evolution of Harper’s tough-on-crime policies: expanding jails, closing prison farms, limiting parole and legislating mandatory minimum sentences. Soon after forming a minority government in 2006 Harper announced plans to increase the prison budget by 30% over three years. Such steep increases were also announced for the military. Harper was going to be tough on criminals and on terrorists.
Harper proceeded in spite of overwhelming evidence that his retributive approach had back-fired elsewhere. Martin notes that over the past four decades the incarceration rate in the U.S. had increased by 700%. Studies have shown that this was largely due to incarcerating more young blacks and Latinos. The unemployed precariat and those marginalized by addiction and mental illness started to crowd American prisons.
The U.S. rate of incarceration now tops the world at over 700/100,000 people, far higher than in authoritarian countries like China (under 200) or Russia (under 500). Meanwhile there has been no drop in the U.S. crime rate; if anything the retributive approach seeded more violence.
But facts weren’t going to deter Harper. To exploit the fear of crime it was simply necessary to discredit the criminological research that showed the folly of his ways. UBC professor of law Michael Jackson and past John Howard Society head Graham Stewart did an extensive review of Harper’s policies and, as Martin noted in Harperland, they concluded that: “Raw wedge politics – in place of studied evidence – is the new face of public policy for Canada.”
HARD ON INMATES
Canada’s prison population steadily increased during a decade of falling crime rates. By 2013 it was at an all-time high. Even with huge increases in prison budgets, 20% of inmates are now double bunked in cells. Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers, notes that aboriginal people while constituting only 4% of the population, makeup 25% of those federally incarcerated. Harper’s tough-on-crime means being tough on the disadvantaged! No wonder he doesn’t want an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.
Previous Liberal governments deserve some credit for attempting knowledge-based justice policy. Before their defeat they had several contributory agreements with Canada’s criminological centres. Before I retired I directed Prairie Justice Research (PJR) at the University of Regina, where we focused on aboriginal justice. Saskatchewan already had a reputation for one of the highest rates of indigenous incarceration not only in Canada but in the world. Federal and provincial policy-makers were interested in developing less costly, more effective alternatives to incarceration. Programs to divert young, first-time offenders from being schooled in crime in prisons were on the upswing.
When Harper got elected he pretty much dismantled the whole federal justice policy research capacity. He did not want research to contradict his ideologically-framed policies on crime. Canadian governance took a huge turn for the worse.
In Part 2 I’ll look further at Harper’s approach to crime.