The throne speech and the crime agenda

By Justin Ling October 17, 201317 October 2013

A few new promises but mostly a re-iteration of the government's existing tough-on-crime policy.

The throne speech and the crime agenda

Copyright © 2013 - The Canadian Bar Association

With recently appointed Justice Minister Peter MacKay at the helm, Ottawa is vowing to get tough on crime – all over again.

This time, the Conservative Government is hitting on some populist messaging planks that blend policy elements from their predecessors in the Reform Party with propositions from the opposition parties that they previously opposed.

In this week’s speech from the throne, the government promised new legislation to create a Victims Bill of Rights, a bill to ban cyberbullying – and criminalize so-called “revenge porn” – and to further clamp down on early release for serious repeat offenders.

But for the most part, promises amounted to a re-iteration of the government's existing policy.

"Canadians are rightfully alarmed when violent offenders found not criminally responsible for their actions are released into our communities. Our Government will re-introduce legislation to ensure that public safety comes first," reads one promise.

The Harper government vowed to stick with its existing position defending Canada's laws criminalizing prostitution – just as the Supreme Court of Canada is considering the constitutionality of Canada’s sex work laws.

Adopting a bill of rights for victims is a longstanding pledge of the Conservatives, dating back to their 2006 platform. While there were no details in the speech about what that bill would look like – a thicket of touchy legal questions crop up whenever the question is raised – the Governor General, speaking for the government, did say that the bill would "restore victims to their rightful place at the heart of our justice system."

This is of concern to legal observers, especially as Sue O’Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime and author of the report that is expected to lay the groundwork for much of the legislation to come, recommends that victims be afforded the right to a review of a decision not to prosecute.

On the other side, the Conservatives came out in support of legislation that would hold cyberbullies criminally responsible.

"Our Government will introduce legislation giving police and prosecutors new tools to effectively address cyberbullying that involves criminal invasion of privacy, intimidation and personal abuse. This legislation would create a new criminal offence prohibiting the non-consensual distribution of intimate images," the speech reads.

Calls for legislation designed to tackle the rising concern of cyberbullying have been growing since a spate of teen suicides garnered international attention. Three were named in the Throne Speech itself – 15 year-old Amanda Todd, of British Columbia, 15 year-old Todd Loik, of Saskatchewan and 17 year-old Haligonian Rehtaeh Parsons. All three took their own lives following harassment from their peers.

In the cases of Parsons and Todd, naked pictures taken of them were spread around their high schools. The trend, so-called revenge porn, has exploded in the social media age. Both cited the constant harassment and shame as a reason for taking their own lives.

Bill C-273, a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal Hedy Fry in 2012 that sought to add cyberbullying to the criminal code, was killed by the House Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in February this year. In the House, then-Parliamentary Secretary for Justice Robert Goguen stood to speak to the bill:

"The vast majority of witnesses cautioned against the approach proposed by Bill C-273. They indicated, among other things, that an increased criminal law approach for the issue would not be effective, would predominantly target Canada's youth population, and might put a chill on the use of other appropriate Criminal Code offences in relation to bullying in some more serious cases. In short, Bill C-273 was not widely supported by the experts in the field. Perhaps to put it a little more strongly, Bill C-273 was rejected as an appropriate response by the majority of expert witnesses."

It’s unclear how similar a government bill might be to Fry's bill, but a fairly obvious concern emerged from that debate – criminalizing children is not always the best strategy.

In August the Nova Scotia government passed legislation that makes a tort of cyberbullying, giving victims the ability to sue their tormentors – or their parents, if the accused is under 18 – and turn to the courts for injunctive protection. In some cases, the courts can step in and remove the accused's access to the internet.

Federal legislation, however, could mean criminal proceedings.


Justin Ling is a regular National contributor based in Ottawa.

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