Conservative crime bill affects new immigrants and marginalizes aboriginals

Activist Chris Preston

Activist Chris Preston - Photo by Wendy Perry

If you live in Canada, your chances of being attacked by a beaver are higher than your chances of being an innocent victim of violent crime.

According to Statistics Canada, crime of all types has been decreasing steadily over the past few decades, and 2011 saw murder rates plummet to the lowest level in the past 44 years.

This being the case, the Conservative government finds it necessary to enact legislation that proposes stiff new sentences on crimes that, as Statistics Canada reports, rarely happen.

The long-term effects of this new legislation are yet to be seen, but politicians and activists are angered by changes to immigration procedures and repercussions to the already marginalized aboriginal community.

New legislation passed

In the fall of 2011, the Conservative government introduced a massive crime omnibus bill called the Safe Streets and Communities Act – commonly referred to as Bill C-10.

The bill essentially combines the nine Conservative crime bills they introduced in their six years as leaders of minority governments, but were defeated by the opposition. This time around, with the Conservative majority in full swing, the bill was passed in parliament and is being presented before the Senate.

Of the many highlights, like new mandatory sentences, “U.S.-style prisons” and new harsher sentences for young offenders, the bill would grant the Immigration Department sweeping new powers. These powers would allow the department to deny work permits to any foreign national who is “at risk of abuse.”

Politicians and activists concerned

Jasbir Sandhu is the NDP MP for Surrey North and critic for public safety. He believes that Bill C-10 is a reactive approach to criminal justice, and notes that similar approaches have already failed in the United States.

“We can learn from them [the U.S.],” he says. “In 2007 and 2008, you had California, Texas and Massachusetts all on the verge of bankruptcy because of this tough on crime approach.”

Sandhu says that Texas realized the approach wasn’t sustainable, as their crime rate remained the same, so they started to reverse it. He says they took an alternative route when dealing with young offenders. They went from 21 youth prevention centres to five in the last three years. Sandhu is impressed with the results.

“The reoffending rate for young offenders has gone down, and the overall crime rate has gone down, because they’ve invested in proactive programs, rather than reactive programs.”

Sandhu believes that the money for new prisons should be spent on preventative measures, like prison reintegration programs, and a more visible police presence.

Vancouver-based activist Chris Preston agrees. He’s been working with homeless and disadvantaged youth for several years now, and believes that the bill will be devastating to those that are currently disenfranchised.

“If you’re going to have a crime and punishment approach,” says Preston, “all you’re going to do is to further marginalize people who are already marginalized.”

He says that what’s needed is more mental health support, community support and youth support. Preston believes that such a long-term approach helps break cycles of crime and keeps repeat offenders out of jail.

He’s also concerned what impact this will have on aboriginal Canadians.

“First Nations people are in prison in a much higher percentage than they are represented by in society,” says Preston, “and all that this bill would do is to get more of these people in prison, for longer.”

Immigration procedures changed

Sandhu is also concerned with how much authority this bill would give to the Immigration Minister when it comes to granting work visas to immigrants.

“What they’re saying is that they’re trying to protect vulnerable members of society, and people who use work permits to bring sex workers into the country,” says Sandhu.

“But what it really does is to put too much power in the hands of the minister. It’s a blank check for the minister to decide who gets into the country and who doesn’t.”

Although it does appear as if the bill will pass, it has reopened debate in this country as to how we punish our criminals. But for Sandhu, the debate is already over.

“This approach has been tried and tested. It’s been a dead end in the U.S., so why are we going down the same road?”