Hanging over the official pardon granted to the convicted sexual abuser Graham James is the question of whether existing provisions protect children. Until this weekend, the Canadian government accepted that they did. Despite the pardon, this former elite-level hockey coach would still have his name flagged on the Canadian Police Information Centre database by a prospective employer if he applied to work at a summer camp, a hockey school, Big Brothers or anywhere else children or the vulnerable are involved.
The shock and horror expressed by the Conservative government seem more about telling Canadians it is not our fault than about substance. It is not clear that the protection of children is at stake and, if it is, why has the government waited until now to take notice? No doubt Mr. James committed despicable crimes and a terrible breach of trust, but is his case a good reason to remake public policy?
Since pardons are designed to help ex-convicts reintegrate into productive society, Ottawa should avoid the temptation to rewrite the Criminal Records Act because of one lone controversy. There have been 234,000 pardons issued since 1970, and fewer than 3 per cent have been rescinded - though even a suspicion or allegation of wrongdoing is grounds for doing so. More than three million Canadians have a criminal record; integration is important for society.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews let it be known yesterday that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was so troubled that he interrupted his Good Friday to phone Mr. Toews and express his concern. The government has put forward a blizzard of criminal-justice legislation since the Conservative Party took office under Mr. Harper in 2006. How is it they never uttered a peep about pardons for sex offenders?
Then the news broke that Mr. James, not just any pedophile, was quietly pardoned three years ago, along with nearly 15,000 other people. One of his two confirmed victims is junior player Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the National Hockey League. Former NHL star Theoren Fleury has publicly accused his former coach of having abused him, too. By Easter Monday, Mr. Toews was popping up to promise a revamped law.
Mr. James was sentenced to 31/2 years, a reflection that his crimes, while serious, were nowhere near the worst of the worst. There is no suggestion he received inappropriate or favourable treatment from parole authorities. The board had the duty to investigate whether he was "of good conduct" and whether he had committed any more crimes since his release. Ex-convicts who wish to maintain their pardons need to keep the peace, a useful incentive for doing so.
Having served his time, Mr. James is entitled to use the rules at his disposal to get on with his life. Offenders are allowed under the Criminal Records Act to seek a pardon five years after their sentences are done (those on life sentences, such as murderers, are not permitted to apply, even when paroled). Many sex offenders who are released from prison cannot apply for long periods, because they are on community supervision orders for up to 10 years. The benefit of a pardon is that it puts an individual's criminal record out of reach of most of those who might seek it. Once pardoned, ex-convicts do not have to say when applying for a job or an apartment that they have a criminal record. Still, there is an exception for those who abuse children. Their record is flagged when agencies involved with children ask for it.
Should sex offenders be singled out further? Mr. Toews said he wants pardons to be more difficult to obtain for some types of crimes than others, given that "certain types of criminals cannot be rehabilitated." Maybe so. If he can show that the system of pardons is putting children at risk from sex offenders or others, he should strengthen that system. But surely the government knew that sex offenders are already being treated as a separate class of ex-convicts, and are being given pardons. The government's expressions of horror and disgust are a touch melodramatic. The Graham James case should not be such a surprise.
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