Lisa Kerr is an assistant professor at the faculty of law at Queen’s University.
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole tweeted on Tuesday that “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.” And, as was no doubt intended, the tweet caught fire.
Front-line health workers are already prioritized for the vaccine and are currently receiving it, as former member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes pointed out. Lawyers asked Mr. O’Toole how he intended to implement his proposal: Would the ban apply to the 3.8 million Canadians with a criminal record, and was he proposing that we add a criminal-record check to the administrative burdens weighing upon the vaccine rollout? Would it apply to Ontario jails, where the majority of prisoners are awaiting trial and presumed innocent?
Those with compassion to spare pointed out that prisoners are, in fact, vulnerable Canadians when it comes to COVID-19: they are residents of congregate living facilities, many with serious underlying health conditions.
We might also spare a thought for correctional staff, who will not be safe at work until both they and the population they interact with are vaccinated. After all, thus far in this pandemic, the rate of infection of federal prisoners is five times that of the Canadian public. With prison outbreaks under way in six provinces, local health care systems are under threat.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has confirmed that about 5 per cent of federal inmates – just 600 people who are elderly or medically vulnerable – will be vaccinated on a priority basis. He is following the advice of a national advisory committee on immunization, which identified prisons as “high risk” locations. The Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada – which has a legal duty to offer essential health care to prisoners, and has held many in prolonged isolation and other grueling conditions for months because of COVID-19 – welcomed the news.
But leave aside those serious responses. Let’s focus on Mr. O’Toole’s not-so-serious tweet.
Consider Jonathan Simon’s 2007 book Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. In the decades after the 1960s, Mr. Simon described how the U.S. built a new civil and political order, structured around the problem of crime as a way to energize public support.
All democratic governments, after all, must offer something to voters in order to stay in power. Instead of focusing on the provision of public goods such as education and health care, “governing through crime” is a strategy that uses and amplifies public fear of crime and promises protection with a wide range of tactics and policies. These include increased policing, aggressive prosecution and harsh punishment.
In the U.S., the shift to crime as a central strategic issue was also entangled with the Southern strategy, in which the Republican Party gained support for certain candidates in the South by appealing to racism against Black Americans in the 1970s. As explicit racism was becoming increasingly unviable, debate about the death penalty and sentencing reform became a way of speaking in code about racial subordination.
In Canada, given the grossly disproportionate imprisonment of Indigenous peoples, we must ask what it is that politicians are signalling when they talk about crime.
There are costs to this governance approach, including precious state resources, the loss of other strategies for pursuing sustainable social stability, and the foreclosure of policy debate. For instance, we Canadians tend to talk about the need to prosecute domestic violence, rather than the need for robust legal aid, which would better enable women to leave abusive situations.
In the U.S., they talk about zero tolerance for school shootings, but the conversation stops short of addressing permissive gun laws. Governing through crime is often a way to bluntly eclipse public discourse on social problems that a government is unwilling or unable to address.
When crime becomes a mode of governing, we see claims about championing “victims’ rights” and opaque promises for things such as “truth in sentencing.” Rather than offering crime victims the services that might directly address their needs, victims are given the right to testify in court about how crime has harmed them and are promised that offenders will receive long prison sentences.
This is how the Conservative Party of Canada governed under the leadership of Stephen Harper, and it seems that Erin O’Toole plans to follow in his footsteps. At a time of extraordinary and widespread anxiety about our health and economic well-being, Mr. O’Toole is offering a promise that prisoners will come last.
For some, that might be satisfying on an emotional level. But the pandemic affects us all, and divisive rhetoric is no solution to collective problems.
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