The federal NDP is accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of hypocrisy for using an anecdote about his late brother to highlight equity gaps in the country's current marijuana laws without making any commitment to fix them.
On Monday, Mr. Trudeau recounted the story of how his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, pulled strings within the legal community to expunge a marijuana-possession charge against his late son Michel.
"We were confident that my little brother wasn't going to be saddled with a criminal record for life," Mr. Trudeau said at a town-hall-style event hosted by Vice Canada in Toronto. "However, people from minority communities, marginalized communities, without economic resources are not going to have that kind of option to go through and clear their name in the justice system and that's one of the fundamental unfairnesses of this current system."
But according to critics, the proposed marijuana legislation Mr. Trudeau's government introduced earlier this month only serves to exacerbate that inequity. The bill would legalize marijuana possession for quantities of 30 grams or less, but offers no redress for Canadians who have been charged or convicted of possession under the current legislation.
"You know, Mr. Trudeau admitted that he comes from a privileged background where his own brother got off because his family was rich and well-connected, that he admitted smoking marijuana while he was in the Parliament of Canada and has suffered no consequences," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday. "And yet it doesn't bother him in the least that young people are still being prosecuted today for smoking marijuana. … That's abject hypocrisy by Justin Trudeau."
When a young man at the Vice event who said he's facing possession charges challenged the Prime Minister to clarify his plans for those prosecuted under existing laws, Mr. Trudeau offered vague assurances.
"We will start a process where we try and look at how we're going to make things fairer for those folks and you," Mr. Trudeau said.
Last year, a C.D. Howe Institute report urged the government to pardon everyone who's been convicted of marijuana possession but otherwise carry a clear criminal record. The report's author said that even a minor possession conviction severely limits a person's ability to work and travel.
"If you have a criminal conviction, it automatically disqualifies you from a number of positions," said Anindya Sen, the University of Waterloo economics professor who penned the report. "That's just economic waste. You have people on social assistance who could otherwise be employed and contribute to the economy. If we are going towards a regime where marijuana is legalized, why don't we just go forward and relieve the system of a lot of economic waste now?"
Estimates vary on the number of people with simple possession convictions in the country. Tens of thousands of Canadians have been charged with marijuana possession every year since the 1970s. In 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, police reported 49,000 cannabis possession offences.
"We're looking at numbers in the hundreds of thousands and likely approaching millions of convictions," said Ottawa criminal lawyer Michael Spratt, who has long advocated for the expungement of records for people found guilty of a crime that may soon be legal.
Currently, anyone convicted of marijuana possession can qualify for a record suspension, but they have to wait five years from their sentence completion date to apply. A record suspension doesn't fully remove a criminal record or guarantee a person ability to travel abroad.
But applying for a suspension requires time, organization and a minimum of $631 to cover the application fee. Mr. Spratt would like to see the government waive the fee and prioritize the expungement of past convictions for simple possession.
"The Prime Minister's anecdote perfectly illustrated the hypocrisy of the government's position," Mr. Spratt said. "When marijuana convictions disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized, to point out that his brother was able to escape those consequences due to his status, and his father's status, shows the inequity that existed and exposes the hypocrisy in not moving forward to rectify that situation."