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Sheldon Kennedy listens to Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews as he speaks about legislation to do away with pardons and replace them with what it calls record suspensions in Ottawa, Tuesday May 11, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Sheldon Kennedy listens to Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews as he speaks about legislation to do away with pardons and replace them with what it calls record suspensions in Ottawa, Tuesday May 11, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

With ex-cons, forgiveness should not be by rote Add to ...

Reforming Canada's system of pardons to disqualify child sex offenders such as the former junior hockey coach Graham James - or worse, child sex killer Karla Homolka - is sensible. It's also reasonable to scrap the term "pardon" and substitute "record suspension." Pardon implies a forgiveness that the offender may not have earned. It's entirely the wrong word when given out behind closed doors by appointees from the National Parole Board who are not accountable to the public in whose name they bestow the pardon.

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Still, the Conservative government went unreasonably far by extending the waiting period to 10 years after a sentence's expiration date, and barring even minor child sex offenders, such as those who pat a bum inappropriately, from applying for one. It would be counterproductive to be so stingy with pardons/record suspensions that convicted criminals are denied productive work and are in effect driven back to crime.

The original idea behind Canada's system of pardons should still serve as a guide. As the late Liberal MP Donald Tolmie said in 1967, many people who committed a single crime were hounded and stigmatized for life. They could not join the armed forces, get jobs in the federal or provincial governments, enter the professions, attend university or travel abroad. In Nova Scotia, a municipal council member had to give up his seat when a conviction at age 17 for joy-riding was discovered. Federal Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker spoke in favour of erasing records after a period of time.

For years, the RCMP conducted rigorous reference checks of applicants. Then the system softened. So few applicants were rejected, the pardons seemed to be pulled off a government shelf. There seemed little leeway for the National Parole Board to consider whether applicants, including Mr. James, who abused two of his junior players, were truly reformed.

When the new legislation from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews sticks to the Tolmie-inspired spirit, it's on the right track. Barring those with more than three indictable (serious) offences is reasonable. Asking applicants to show that a pardon would sustain their rehabilitation is in keeping with the original spirit. Keeping serious child sex abusers from receiving pardons will help ensure that they are red-flagged when they apply for work at child-care centres, schools or summer camps.

Giving the parole board the power to reject record suspensions that would bring the justice system into disrepute seems designed to prevent political embarrassment to the government of the day; on the other hand, it's true enough that record suspensions reflect on the criminal-justice system. As long as the bar is set high for "disrepute," the limit seems reasonable.

The purpose of record suspensions is to remove the stigma from those who have served their debt to society, and who have demonstrated a commitment to obeying the law. Mr. Toews is right to end the era of near-automatic forgiveness, but he goes too far at times in discouraging rehabilitation.

 

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