A key Conservative spokesman on law and order created a firestorm by saying that murderers should be provided with suicide material in jail and urging more restrictive immigration policies in the wake of the Shafia honour killings.
Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, a top advocate for victims’ rights in the Harper government, later dialled back his comments, but only after sparking outrage among suicide-prevention experts and the Opposition.
Mr. Boisvenu is well-known in Quebec for launching a group of victims of crime – the Murdered or Missing Persons’ Families Association – after his daughter was abducted, raped and murdered by a repeat offender in 2002. He lost another daughter to a car accident in 2005.
After his 2009 appointment to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the media-savvy Mr. Boisvenu became a government spokesman on law-and-order issues, lashing out repeatedly at other parties as soft on crime and as siding with criminals instead of victims.
Now, however, his political opponents say Mr. Boisvenu has crossed the line and is letting his emotions over his lost daughters overtake his political judgment.
“I share the pain he has felt as a father,” said Liberal MP Denis Coderre. “But he’s a senator and he can’t be inciting suicide, that goes against the Criminal Code.”
Mr. Boisvenu’s comments came as he defended the government’s C-10 crime-fighting omnibus legislation with reporters before a meeting of the Conservative caucus. He said he did not wish to reopen the debate on the death penalty, but added he didn’t mind if murderers end up killing themselves.
“Each assassin should have the right to a rope in his cell to make a decision about his or her life,” he said.
He added he still has questions about the fate of serial killers and those without any hope of rehabilitation in the Canadian jail system.
“I’m against the death penalty, but in horrible cases such as [serial killer Clifford]Olson, can we have a reflection on that issue?” the senator said.
Mr. Boisvenu added there are economic issues at play when considering the death penalty. He pointed specifically to the conviction of three members of the Shafia family, found guilty on Sunday of four “honour” killings.
“Their incarceration will cost $10-million to the Canadian government. There is an economic problem there, it’s $10-million that won’t be spent elsewhere, that is being spent on criminals,” he said.
Mr. Boisvenu said that instead of using the death penalty against the Afghan-born Shafias, “returning them to their country might be a tougher sentence than to keep them here, where our prisons are a lot more comfortable.” He added that the Canadian immigration system should ensure that newcomers agree with Canadian justice after a more “thorough analysis” of their values and beliefs.
“The first filter is whether there are particular communities that have anti-Canadian attitudes?” Mr. Boisvenu said. “Shouldn’t these cases be treated parsimoniously, with a much more thorough investigation, than people coming from France or the United States where there is much more respect for women.”
Faced with opposition attacks, the Prime Minister said he will not reopen the debate on the death penalty, which has been opposed by the Supreme Court.
“We all understand that Senator Boisvenu and his family have suffered horribly in the past, we understand his emotions in that regard,” Mr. Harper said during Question Period. “But this government is focused on making sure we protect victims in the future.”
Mr. Boisvenu did a round of interviews after his initial comments were published, releasing a statement to apologize “if his comment offended people whose close ones committed suicide.”
Despite the climb-down, Mr. Boisvenu’s comments were seen as hurting suicide-prevention efforts.
“He is seriously underestimating the reach of his words for people who are in a state of distress,” said Bruno Marchand, director-general of the Quebec Association for the Prevention of Suicide.
Mr. Marchand added that Mr. Boisvenu’s comments stand to fuel the risk of suicide among inmates who already feel “useless,” and could affect people facing financial or marital problems.
Mr. Boisvenu’s remarks come after two high-profile prison suicides in Quebec. Paul Laplante, who was recently charged with the 2008 murder of his wife, was found dead at a prison in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Que., last month. A few days later, Kathrine Dufresne, who was charged with murdering her adopted daughter last year, killed herself in a prison cell in Gatineau, Que.