Trudeau government plays politics with pardon reform

June 18, 2021

Earlier this month, the Trudeau government introduced new legislation designed to increase the fairness and accessibility of Canada’s pardon system.

If a government ever passes it into law, the new bill would roll back pardon eligibility periods to 3 years for summary offences and five years for indictable offences, which the Harper government increased to 5 and 10 years. The legislation also proposes eliminating the current ineligibility for a pardon for people with more than three indictable offences, reversing another restriction on pardon availability imposed under the last Conservative government.

As part of the announcement of the new pardon bill, the government also promised to: significantly reduce the application fee from the current and prohibitively expensive $657.77 to as low as $50; invest in a new online portal to make the application process simpler and quicker, and provide $22.2 million over five years for community-based organizations to offer support services to help people complete pardon applications.

These long-promised changes are desperately needed to fix a system that the Harper government intentionally tried to break.

But the government should not be patting itself on the back. And Canadians should not let themselves be fleeced by government spin.

The Trudeau government has long known the pardon system is broken and in need of fixing. Way back in 2016, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale vowed to overhaul Canada’s pardon system, calling the changes made by the Harper government a “punitive measure.”

And yet, for over half a decade, the government sat on its hands and did absolutely nothing to overhaul the Criminal Records Act, even after aspects of it were found unconstitutional by courts in Ontario and British Columbia.

The new legislation and its timing smell of politicking of the worst kind. The government dropped the bill right before the MPs and the House of Commons take a two-month summer break and in the shadow of a Fall election that almost every Ottawa pundit predicts.

Let’s be clear, this new bill will never be debated; it won’t be studied; it won’t be voted on; and it certainly will never be passed into law. It will not ever help anyone.

The Liberals are holding hostage every person who has a criminal record. Our justice system is overly punitive. It is also systemically racist. The inability to obtain a pardon means many people — and a disproportionate number of racialized people — are denied jobs, housing, and full participation in society. The pre-election message the Liberals are sending to these people is, “Want a fresh start? Vote for us, or you won’t get it.”

If the government were serious about reform and not just messaging, they would have introduced legislation in a timelier manner. They could have adopted one of the two bills that Senator Kim Pate introduced, making pardons free and automatic.

Heck, legislation is not even necessary to reduce the application fee; that can be done with a simple pen stroke through regulation.

So, forgive those who see this late new pardon legislation as a cynical bit of pre-election politicking.

It is in the public interest to have a robust system of pardons. It is in the interest of society to reintegrate people back into society after they have committed a criminal offence. The removal of the stigma of a conviction through a pardon aids in this reintegration.

The expert evidence is clear; continued stigmatization of offenders through a criminal record is ineffective in reducing re-offending. There is a solid empirically-based argument that withholding pardons contributes to crime.

People with criminal records experience employment disadvantaged even though they are unlikely to re-offend. A 2004 study found that people who describe themselves as having criminal records, especially Black applicants, cannot get work as easily as those who apply but do not mention anything about criminal records.

From the perspective of society as a whole — not just the offender applying for a pardon — the availability of pardons in a timely fashion is in the interest of public safety in that it is in society’s interest to aid in the peaceful reintegration of those who have offended.

It has been more than 200 years since a hot iron was used to mark permanent letters on the bodies of people convicted of crimes in courtrooms across England — the birthplace of Canada’s common law system of justice.

A criminal record is almost as visible and damaging a brand as the hot iron markings. And if the Trudeau government cared, they would have done something about it a long time ago.


This opinion first appeared in Canadian Lawyer