Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Louis Riel, 1865.

Library and Archives Canada

Jean Teillet is the author of The North-West is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation and Métis Law in Canada. She is an Indigenous rights lawyer and the great grandniece of Louis Riel.

We are going to hear a lot about pardons in the next month or two. U.S. President Donald Trump may have been defeated at the polls, but he retains a virtually unchecked pardoning power. It is a foregone conclusion that he will pardon his friends. The question is whether he will (or even legally can) pardon himself, as he has already claimed to be able to do – which would be right in line with the already long-tarnished and ignominious history of the act.

The pardon is a species of extra-judicial clemency that also includes exoneration, amnesty and commutation of sentence. Clemency powers are discretionary, with almost no checks and balances, and so it is no surprise that the history of clemency is a loaded litany of humanity’s best and worst instincts.

Story continues below advertisement

When they’re used most ideally, a pardon is a rescue remedy for the victims of legal errors. In Canada, pardons provide relief from further legal consequences for those who have paid their penalty. That’s a good thing, and virtually every country in the world has some means of clemency to counteract the often brutal and unrelenting consequences of the law. At its worst, however, clemency is used to benefit individuals or to reinforce the power of the state. It can also be used as a mop to clean up political messes. Clemency is often designed to ensure that everyone knows who bestowed the gift; the recipient is expected to be very public in conveying the appropriate amount of gratitude.

It has never been easy to access. Ancient Athenians could petition for amnesty, though the prerequisite of 6,000 signatures was likely a powerful deterrent. Some states would regularly issue pardons on official holidays; it was at an annual Passover pardon that Pontius Pilate pardoned Barabbas and condemned Jesus. Pardons are issued every year in Iran to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, and just this week, 157 such pardons were issued.

In 1974, Republican president Gerald Ford granted a “full, free and absolute pardon” to his predecessor Richard Nixon for crimes he might have committed during his term as president. Mr. Ford claimed the decision was made so there could be closure to the Watergate affair – that by accepting the pardon, Mr. Nixon was effectively confessing his guilt. But there would be no social closure afterward, and the American public, unable to get the judicial catharsis it needed by bringing Mr. Nixon to judgment, turned its wrath on the Republican Party. In the following midterm elections, the Republicans lost 43 seats in the House and three in the Senate, and Mr. Ford was defeated in the next presidential election – losses attributed by many historians to the pardon.

Although Mr. Nixon seriously considered pardoning himself, no president has actually done so. But that might change in the next few months. There is no lawful way to stop Mr. Trump from pardoning himself; after-the-fact legal action against the 74-year-old would take years, if not decades, to conclude, and by then, only legal scholars will care. In the immediate term, Mr. Trump will be happy to walk away from the White House with his pardon in his pocket.

But there will be consequences. The Senate majority will be decided by a runoff in Georgia in January, and if Mr. Trump pardons himself, those already-close races may go to the Democrats, especially if Republicans either tacitly accept a Trump self-pardon or actively support it. Republicans could also pay in the midterms. It’s unlikely that Mr. Trump will care about the ultimate fate of the Republican Party, since his self-interest tends to override every other consideration. He may still face state prosecutions, but that will have no bearing on his ability, through his pardon power, to sweep federal prosecutions off the table. So why wouldn’t he pardon himself? He has nothing to lose.

President-elect Joe Biden could challenge the pardon in court, but that will not heal the nation. Mr. Biden seems unlikely to use his political capital to blow down a defeated man, particularly one as popular as Mr. Trump remains among his many supporters. So the reality is this: Mr. Trump would likely get away with pardoning himself. Democrats will see it as the ultimate act of corruption. Mr. Trump’s supporters will see it as a smart move. And no healing can possibly occur.

So does a pardon or exoneration really ever change anything? It is a question many states have had to deal with, including Canada. On Nov. 16, we mark the 135th anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, and Canadian governments through the years have, on multiple occasions, offered to pardon or exonerate him of his conviction of high treason, an offer usually unaccompanied by any other kind of reconciliation.

Story continues below advertisement

For decades Canada saw exoneration of Riel as the only Métis issue it was willing to act on, likely because it cost nothing but minimal political capital. The Métis Nation has always rejected such moves, seeing them for what they were: tokenism. Lately, though, this has changed. Canada has now adopted a more respectful relationship with Indigenous people. Exoneration might now be accompanied by meaningful action.

There have been recent calls for exoneration by means of a bill in Parliament. There is a long history of such bills. Most of the early ones sought a pardon. Some made no mention of the Métis at all. Now the language has evolved and the relief sought is exoneration. But nothing turns on the name. Call it a pardon or exoneration, redress or grace, remission or commutation – it is still a grant of clemency granted or withheld at the state’s pleasure.

The Métis Nation has never sought state clemency for Riel because, in their view, Riel doesn’t need exoneration. Canada does. Canada would not be exonerating Riel. It would, like Trump’s pardon, be exonerating itself. Perhaps the better move would be for the Métis Nation, in the spirit of reconciliation, to convene a process to consider exonerating Canada.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies