Stepping out of a cold, windy Toronto Wednesday night and into the Church of the Redeemer on Bloor street, I'm a little shocked as the warmth of the standing room only crowd hits me. Hundreds of people are here to listen to a panel discussion on Bill C-10, a crime bill being introduced by the Canadian government. The panellists sitting on the stage look small and unobtrusive in comparison to the high ceilings, big stained glass windows and large yellow brick walls with the words "I know that my redeemer liveth" looming over them. But the mental contrast tonight is between the vast open space of the church we're in and the small confines of a seven square metre prison cell.
Bill C-10 is a massive piece of legislation of roughly 100 pages that rolls nine laws from organized and drug crime, to pardons, to child sex offenders, to migrants entering Canada and young offenders into a single omnibus law. The panel is focusing on how the bill's policy on mandatory minimum sentencing for selling, or even giving away a small amount of drugs, will criminalize a generation and attack some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
"I teach an third-year criminology course at the University of Ottawa. Eighty per cent of my students are criminals under this legislation. About 10 to 20 per cent of them would be liable to a mandatory minimum sentence in a federal penitentiary of two years for simply passing a tab of ecstasy at a party on university campus," said Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer who was a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy and has appeared many times before Canadian Parliamentary committees on drug policy issues.
"I am not pro-drug, I am pro-sensible drug policy and there is a very, very big difference between the two. I've never even tried cannabis, which makes me probably a minority in my age. So I'm not here to advocate for drugs," Oscapella quipped with a laugh before returning to a more sombre tone. "I'm here to discuss how we can best manage the drugs that are available in our society. This bill that is introducing these mandatory minimum penalties is not going to be the way to do it."
While occasional recreational drug use might not be the most healthy thing to do, it's a very common one with 25.1 per cent of youth 15-24 years of age reporting using cannabis and 7.9 per cent using other drugs according to Health Canada. So what Bill C-10 could do with mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offences is turn a generation of young people into hardened prisoners for something that's as common as taking public transit to work in a major Canadian city.
When asked what he saw in terms of rehabilitation in the bill, Greg Simmons, a 46-year-old African-Canadian who spent almost 14 years of his adult life in prison, paused for several seconds to consider the question and then answered, "Nothing."
After waiting for the chuckles to subside Simmons said, "I don't know if you've seen any movies, 'I'm not going to prison, I'm never going to let them take me back.' Well, this bill creates that mind-set even further. When you look at the states it hasn't worked, the crime rates went up, the victim rates went up. I can't think of anything more harmful to society than this bill."
The bill also has a serious impact on Aboriginal Peoples' rights. Krysta Williams, an indigenous feminist and Lead Youth Advocate with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network said, "A supreme court decision came down about 10 years ago, it's now called Gladue, what it said was that when a judge is sentencing an aboriginal person they have to take into account the historical context. They have to take into account the current systemic injustices we face just because of who we are. What this bill is actually trying to do is take that away. Taking away our rights in terms of saying to the court that there's been a lot of damage done now and in the past and that needs to be recognized when talking about sentencing."
Along with the criminalization of youth and drug users, Bill C-10 also puts public health at risk through a lack of support for harm reduction programs in federal prisons, such as a lack of a needle exchange program for injection drug users. These conditions cause HIV and hepatitis C rates to rise inside the prison population and once released will spread into the community at large as people continue to use or unknowingly infect their sexual partners.
Bill C-10 will give people who might not have drug problems a drug policy problem. And that is a bad policy for everyone.
Mick Sweetman is the news intern at rabble.ca. Follow him on Twitter here.