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Supreme Court of Canada rules that the sentence for Quebec City mosque shooter was unconstitutional

June 2022

A decision by the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the sentence mass-murderer Alexandre Bissonnette received after he pleaded guilty to the January 2017 shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Ste-Foy. Six men were killed in the attack, Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti, and five others were seriously wounded.

Bissonnette was sentenced to life in prison, with no parole eligibility for 40 years. Prior to the law being changed by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011, anyone sentenced to life imprisonment for first-degree murder automatically had parole eligibility set at 25 years, regardless of how many people the convicted person actually killed. Those convicted of second-degree murder have a parole eligibility set anywhere between 10 to 25 years.

Effectively, regardless of whether you kill one or twenty-one, a convicted murderer could find themselves released on parole as late as 25 years, although due to the-then statutory provision under Section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, also known as the “Faint Hope Clause,” someone sentenced to a parole eligibility of greater than 15 years could apply for parole as early as just 15 years.

After amendments to the Criminal Code were passed into law, judges were given the ability to sentence someone convicted of multiple murders to consecutive sentences, instead of concurrent, meaning that someone convicted for multiple murders could face a 25-year parole ineligibility period for each conviction. Additionally, the “Faint Hope Clause” was also eliminated.

This saw convicted multiple-murderer Justin Bourque effectively sentenced to serve at least 75 years in prison before parole eligibility for murdering three people in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 2014. If still alive by that time, Bourque would be 99-years-old.

The main pillar of Canada’s Criminal Justice System, something that should more appropriately be named the Justice for Criminals System, is rehabilitation. Now, this is an appropriate philosophy for most offences, given that unless you are sentenced to a life term, said criminal will eventually have to be reintegrated into society, so if you are a better person, you will be less likely to reoffend.

However, for the most serious offences, including murder, I don’t particularly care if you are rehabilitated or not. If you are, great. If you are truly remorseful for taking a human life, that’s great. You can show all how good a person you have become from inside the prison walls.

Now, any good lawyer or judge will tell you that parole eligibility is just that; eligibility. It doesn’t automatically mean the offender will be granted parole. This is very true. Multiple murders like Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olson were all sentenced under the old 25-year eligibility. Olson died in prison in 2011, spending 40 years in prison. Bernardo has been in prison since being arrested in 1995 and given his designation as a Dangerous Offender, it’s unlikely that he will ever be released on parole.

Bottom line, I don’t care about the rehabilitation prospects for those convicted of multiple murders, nor do I care if it hurts their feelings to have to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Maybe you should have thought about that before you committed multiple murders.

What about the feelings of the friends and family of those who were murdered, none of whom will get their lost lives back after 25 years?

One factor that I never hear discussed in the “institutionalization” of the offender. This is something that I learnt and saw first-hand when I worked as federal corrections officer. For anyone who has seen the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” or read the original Stephen King story (yes, it’s a Stephen King story), “institutionalization” is touched on in the movie. This is where someone has been in prison for so long, they don’t feel comfortable and are unable to function on the outside.

After working at Beaver Creek Institution, a minimum-security (Club Fed-type prison) in Gravenhurst, Ontario, for less than a year, I got to know an inmate serving a life sentence. Inmate Smith, as I will call him, had been in prison for 26 years at this point, which was just two years shorter than I’d been alive at that point. As I recall, he was in his early to mid 20s when sentenced, so he would have been in his 50s by this time. He worked in the prison library and on one particular morning, I had a chance to chat with him outside the library, while he waited for the newspapers to be delivered to the institution.

Smith told me that he had a parole hearing scheduled for that week (I can’t remember exactly when now) and he told me that he was going to tell the Parole Board to go fuck themselves. As it turned out, Smith didn’t want to get out of prison; he was quite happy right where he was now. I was a little taken aback by this, but after some thought, I understood his feelings.

I never saw anyone come to visit him at the prison. I don’t remember his education level or job skills now, but he wasn’t a highly-skilled, highly-educated man. What I do remember is that he didn’t appear to have a lot to look forward to on the outside.

Meanwhile, inside the institution, he was a somebody. At the time, he was vice-chair of the Inmate Committee, which is a very important position. He ran the prison library and had learnt how to use a computer there. Smith played bass guitar, and spent some of his off-time in the music room, jamming with some of the other musically talented musicians. He had access to a full gym for work-outs. Most importantly, he had a comfortable place to sleep, three good meals a day, a TV, friends; basically all the things he needed in life.

On the outside, he was basically a nobody. On the outside, Smith would need to reintegrate to society. He would initially be housed at a halfway house, but eventually he would have to find a job, find an apartment, buy his own food, a bed to sleep in, pay bills, get a bank account, etc.

Sources: Moncton shootings – Wikipedia, Faint hope clause – Wikipedia, Sentence for Quebec City mosque shooter was unconstitutional: Supreme Court | Montreal Gazette.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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