Thursday, December 29, 2022

Tougher Laws = More Justice … Or Do They?

So, yesterday, a police officer in Ontario was killed.  Inevitably, we get cries of “this could have been prevented”, largely on the basis that one of the accused in the murder was out on bail awaiting trial for a series of charges.  

There’s a problem here:  the claim that this could have been prevented implies that the accused should have been in prison already. Yet, it’s relatively rare for a bench warrant to trigger a manhunt unless the charges are such that the accused is assumed to be a danger to the public - which most accused aren’t.  The police generally seem to sit back and wait for the person to turn up either of their own volition, or in a more mundane incident like a traffic stop. 

However, I’m not here to blame the police for not being aggressive in enforcing the bench warrant.  Just enforcing those could chew up a lot of resources that regional police forces probably don’t have. 

So what are the likely alternatives?  

Do Away With Bail? 

Doing away with bail - even in situations where the accused has convictions for similar charges in their past - could be enormously problematic. First, it violates the fundamental presumption of our legal system that the accused is innocent.  You are effectively “pre-punishing” someone by keeping them in remand in advance of any trial.  Generally we have sought not to do so because that detention is really for the “worst of the worst” cases. (Serial killers, extremely violent offenders, etc.)

Also, doing away with bail would have multiple knock-on effects in our justice system.  It would drive up the costs associated with Remand detention.  Keeping someone in remand is expensive, and taxpayers generally are going to be antsy about those costs. 

Given the often lengthy amount of time to get to trial, the time served could easily exceed any prison sentence that would be handed down.  That would almost inevitably result in a lot of people being released “for time already served” the day sentences are handed down. Not only does this miss the point of a justice system entirely, but it renders any notion of “punishment” academic at best. It also likely as not is going to turn the remand facilities into “criminal colleges”, whose graduates will go on to commit more crimes. (Remand is already bad enough for that effect due to a lack of rehabilitative programming)

Shorten The Time To Trial

Getting a criminal case to trial has been a problem for years now. To some extent, this is a matter of resourcing the justice system better.  The courts have also ruled that there is in fact a window of time that is allowable for a case coming to trial, after which the rights of the accused are deemed to have been violated. 

While improving the throughput of the courts is certainly a laudable objective, it’s not going to solve the problem of an accused offender going on to commit other offences while awaiting trial.  

Make Punishments Harsher? 

We could enact laws that impose ever harsher sentences, but to me that’s a failed experiment in 19th Century thinking. The argument that “harsher sentences are a deterrent” is simply false when you are looking at crime and punishment.  There is a validity to there being a significant penalty associated with criminal acts.  I’m good with that. We should never make the assumption that a particular punishment is in any way a deterrent to a criminal. 

In general doing so assumes that the prospective criminal is even thinking about the potential consequences of their actions at the time of committing (or even planning) an offence.  If that were the case, then there are entire countries where crime should be all but non-existent, and yet those countries continue to have the same, or worse, problems with crime.  

To be clear, I don't think there is a singular solution to the problem at hand.  We already know that our prison systems are overburdened, and vastly under-resourced when it comes to inmates and programming to help inmates become productive members of society post-sentence.  Far too much emphasis has been placed on punishment, not enough on rehabilitation, with the result that prisons in some ways become "Universities for Crime", and parolees their graduates. 

There is a need for society to address issues like systemic oppression, poverty, etc in an effort to reduce the long term negative consequences of those issues that so often lead to people committing offences.  

On the other side of the coin, while punishment needs to be punishment, we also have to look at how we prepare prisoners to function in the real world. Simply kicking them out at the end of their sentences with little or no supports is practically begging for them to return to the life of crime they knew before. That means making skills training, psychological supports, and safe housing available. 

In terms of prison structure and management, I think we should take a much closer look at the approaches used in countries like Sweden and Norway - with the caveat that those approaches will need to be adapted carefully for the kind of cultural mosaic that exists in Canada. Simply trying to pivot to it will fail. 

I think some of the ideas around the aboriginal concepts of restorative justice warrant further exploration, as do more flexible approaches to managing justice in ways that are culturally sensitive for the variety of cultural groups that live here today. 

None of this is easy, and all of it costs money. We need to stop acting like there are simple solutions to matters of crime and punishment. There aren't, and there never will be. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Musk's Twitter, Free Speech ... and Pronouns

It's been wild ride over on Twitter since Elon Musk took over.  

For a supposed "free speech absolutist", Musk is proving to be anything but. He has spent the last 6 weeks, firing everybody at Twitter, going after people who criticize him, and re-enabling the accounts of every right wing hate monger that Twitter had banned in the last 5 years.  

Oh - and on the side, he's been booting left wing accounts that he dubs "too woke" off the site arbitrarily.

Quite a time indeed.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

The Alberta Sovereignty Act: A Pas a Deux With Danielle Smith and Stephen Harper

I’m not going to use the full title of that act - partly because it’s ridiculously long, and like many things out of the UCP, utterly devoid of real meaning. 

But, I do want to make some speculative comments.  Others have already pointed out that within the context of Canada, the fundamental assumption of the law is simply wrong-headed.  We already have mechanisms in place for examining whether a given Federal law is “overreach” or not - it’s called the courts, and those cases get very high priority in the first place. Smith, is of course playing on the fact that every case Alberta has brought in the last decade has ultimately failed at the SCC.

Is this law merely sour grapes?  The act of a populist legislator who wants to continue to feed on the simmering grievances of Alberta’s often civically illiterate population?  Pandering to those who prefer simplistic bromides about how things should work instead of the subtle complexities of actual law and politics of compromise that underpin confederation? I do not think it is so simple. 

Ever since Smith first uttered her promise of an “Alberta Sovereignty Act” during her campaign for the UCP leadership, there has been a steady stream of provincial conservatives adopting variations on the same line.  This is not a coincidence. 

Back in 2015 when the conservatives botched their campaign so monumentally, and Stephen Harper all but rage quit elected politics, I figured he was going to resurface with a different game plan.  If he couldn’t make conservatives “The Natural Governing Party” of Canada (especially with himself at the helm), then I figured that he was going to attempt to blow up Canada instead. 

I don’t think I was wrong in that speculation.  Bear with me while I spend a few minutes walking through the post-2015 timeline. 

Two major events occurred in 2015 that are important to this discussion:  

The first was Stephen Harper’s CPC losing the federal election.  The second was Rachel Notley’s NDP winning in Alberta - long considered “Fortress Alberta” by conservatives because of a decades-long dominance of that province’s politics both provincial and federal. 

That provoked one of the biggest “rage campaigns” that I’ve ever seen in my life. From 2015 onwards, the politics in Alberta were a constant barrage of attacks on Trudeau, and attacks on Notley.  Death threats became normal for Notley, and similar attitudes were often expressed towards Trudeau. 

By the end of 2015, Jason Kenney had stepped out of his job as MP in Ottawa, and began campaigning in Alberta to weld the PCAA and WRP together.  Kenney spent much of his time campaigning slagging Notley, and associating Notley with Trudeau by talking about the “Notley-Trudeau Alliance”.  Also, Kenney spent a lot of time whipping up “separatist sentiment” in Alberta - and while in power, he continued to foster so-called “western alienation”.  Whatever you say about Kenney, he’s a tireless campaigner - he clearly loves it when he’s got a room paying attention to what he says. 

Behind the scenes, Kenney and Harper were meeting with considerable regularity.  It’s no secret that both men were “old friends”, but I suspect Harper was playing a significant role in helping Kenney strategize the formation of the UCP.

The UCP represented a new brand of conservatism in Alberta. It was much more rooted in the individualist populism (“pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”) that were central to Western Canada Concept (WCC), Reform, and Wildrose Party politics than the Lougheed-era PCs. Add to that a significant portion of the party has strong connections to rural religiosity (which tends to be very fundamentalist), and you have much less negotiable form of politics. To put it mildly, the Kenney-led UCP spent a great deal of political capital playing the cities as the great rival to rural interests, and likewise also spent much of its time trying to drive a wedge between Alberta and confederation with constant attacks on Trudeau.  

Why the attacks on Trudeau?  Didn’t he rescue the TMX project when it was on the verge of collapse, and KXL remained very much up in the air?  Yes, he did.  You cannot underestimate the depth of the long fostered hatred for the Trudeau name that conservatives in Albertas have fostered. Since the 1980s they have continually banged on that drum to Alberta voters.  The spectre of Pierre Trudeau rising from the grave to implement another NEP had become standard fare whenever the people of Alberta might have started to talk even remotely favourably about Ottawa.  In fact, conservatives in Alberta have long equated the name Trudeau, and the NEP, with the identity of “Ottawa” as the capital of Canada. It’s a political tool for them. 

To put it mildly, anyone who was steeped in Alberta conservative politics for any length of time utterly loathes the fact that Canada has another Trudeau for a Prime Minister.  That’s why there is this constant stream of invective aimed at him from this province.  Harper’s dislike of Justin Trudeau is no surprise. Perhaps even more so than Kenney, Harper seems to view Justin Trudeau with a particular disdain. 

Elsewhere in Canada, we have seen a wave of increasingly “libertarian-right” conservative Premiers - Scott Moe in Saskatchewan, Brian Pallister in Manitoba, Doug Ford in Ontario, Tim Houston in Nova Scotia, and so on.  

Scott Moe in particular is interesting to this discussion.  About a year after he was elected, his government signed a contract with Harper and Associates for consulting services.  That contract appears to be the turning point. Up to there, Moe was a relatively quiet Premier on the federal stage, and while I disagree with much of his policies, he wasn’t actively working to undermine the federal government.  Once this contract with Harper and Associates appeared, he started working in concert with Jason Kenney, Doug Ford and so on - often copying Kenney’s lead, and more recently borrowing from Danielle Smith’s “sovereignty act”.  

If that isn’t enough to make you go “hmm”, it should be.  It ties together key facets of the picture, and connects things back to Harper.  Harper may not be in elected office any more, but that doesn’t mean he is less influential within conservative circles.  He remains a formidable force, and arguably has as much to do with why party leadership has been as shaky as it has these past few years - everybody is looking over their shoulders to see what Harper is up to. 

I'm fairly certain that after his 2015 defeat (to Justin Trudeau, no less), Harper decided that if he couldn't rule over Canada, he was going to find a way to blow it up.  Feeding Alberta's simmering separatist movement was an easy starting point, and frankly the COVID Pandemic proved a very fruitful opportunity to shove disinformation and foment anger in Alberta.  The fact that he had access to several other conservative premiers who would follow Jason Kenney's lead in undermining the Federal Government's attempts to manage the situation. 

Which brings us to Danielle Smith.  I'm not certain how close Smith and Harper are, but Smith's actions continue to be consistent with a larger overall push to isolate "conservative Canada" from the "rest of Canada".  There's no question that the "Sovereignty Act" is clearly designed to be divisive, and it contains a veritable wish list of asserted powers that sounds an awful lot like those demanded in the infamous "Firewall Letter" of so many years ago. 

That isn't to say that Harper is controlling the whole show - I think he's directing it though.  His goal has always been to eradicate the Liberals, and failing doing that successfully after a decade as Prime Minister clearly stings.  I think he's now decided that failing that, he's going to isolate the Prairies politically, and he's now pushing to break Canada by undermining the institutions of government.  It won't hurt his feelings to do so - again, partisan conservatives in Canada have long chafed at the 1983 Constitution not only because it is the work of a Trudeau, but because the way it is written is basically antithetical to how they look at power and governance. 

The Cass Review and the WPATH SOC

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