According to Statistics Canada, 2010 closed with the 33rd consecutive drop in both the rate and the severity of crime across Canada. Despite this, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has reintroduced their much-anticipated "law and order" agenda in the form of the colossal crime bill, C-10. Dubbed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, it combines nine of the former bills that had failed to pass into law due to opposition and repeated prorogations of Parliament.
Still other criminal law bills that failed to pass previously have been re-introduced separately by the Conservatives, focusing on tightening both our online freedoms and Canadian immigration law.
Safe streets and communities: Who wouldn't want that?
Despite how widespread the resistance to Bill C-10 has been, it has thus far been futile. It seems that there is no bridging the gap between conservative ideology and the truth behind the causes of community harm. The causes, of course, are poverty, unemployment, inequality and trauma. Addressing these issues requires thoughtfulness and a commitment to evidence-based practices that reflect a human rights framework.
Precisely because Bill C-10 ignores evidence and human rights, all manner of people have resisted it, from the NDP and other opposition parties to experts in the field and ordinary citizens. These include the 37,000 members of the Canadian Bar Association, 563 doctors who signed the Urban Health Research Initiative's letter opposing Bill S-10, the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, NORML Canada, Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force, Pivot Legal Society, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Bar Association and others representing thousands of social workers, health-care providers, teachers and clergy who recognize the hyperbole around the conservative law and order agenda for what it is -- partisan ideology, greed and fear.
An ideology of poor bashing and fear
Harper's political base doesn't care much about sound statistics and proven best practices, certainly not if these are competing with the satisfaction obtained through retribution and high profit margins.
The "hang 'em high" approach has been used successfully in the past. The Harris government in Ontario in the '90s made "war on the poor" by demonizing us (no more free rides for these lazy, drug-addicted criminals) while simultaneously cutting the services and welfare rates which could prevent many from becoming addicted and criminalized in the first place. Harris' ability to dehumanize and criminalize the poor was a successful tactic used to elevate his political popularity. It was successful because he was seen by many to be demanding nothing more than the traits of self-sufficiency and hard work, held dear by many Canadians, and often used as a measure of an individual's worth and respectability.
It's important to remember, however, that the majority of the poor, including those on social assistance, would rather not be in that situation. And much like more privileged Canadians, the poor are seeking ways to improve their circumstances and that of their families.
The neo-conservative agenda: Increased crime and less safety
Stephen Harper has claimed that Canadians are unsafe and that only by restricting our freedoms further will we achieve safety. In fact, what the Harper Conservatives will likely achieve is not increased safety but an increase in "crime". As our freedoms are increasingly made illegal, and social programs which stave off desperation are de-funded, our "crime" rates will soar, thus justifying the prison-building boom and tough-on-crime rhetoric.
The people of the United States have learned this the hard way. Decades of "tough on crime," "war on drugs" ideology has translated into programs of mass incarceration. (See this link for up-to-the-minute dollars spent and numbers incarcerated in the U.S. drug war.) Communities of colour and those living on low incomes have been impacted most harshly as a result. Studies have found that removing income-contributing adults from already struggling households, increased desperation and provided even fewer choices within those homes and throughout those communities. People were forced more often to make choices between seeing their children do without necessities or engaging in that which we refer to as "crime" in order to provide for them. These factors add up to ever increasing rates of "crime" in communities that are heavily impacted by criminalization and imprisonment.
If criminalizing and incarcerating people are known to make us less safe then why are the Conservatives doing it?
Of profits and prisons
Those warehoused under the new Conservative regime will become the raw material for a profitable industry popular in the U.S.: privatized, for-profit prisons. "Crime" must be increased to keep the bodies flowing on a pay-per-capita basis. Then, once locked up, those bodies can be transformed into even more profit in the form of prisoner labour. Free labour will be sold to third parties at discounted and very profitable rates. Corporations able to win prison contracts will have a serious one-up on the competition, since, according to the Coalition for Prisoners' Rights, prisoners are typically paid between $0 and $4.75 per day.
The Conservatives' so-called "law and order" agenda is but one small piece of a much larger picture. The neo-conservative agenda has long been to privatize public resources and slash social services, while increasing social control and providing complete freedom for corporations. Because there are substantial disadvantages to most of us in these methods and because of the potential for resistance on the grandest of scales, the neo-conservatives fear us -- we, the true majority. Because of this we are seeing greater restrictions on civil freedoms including workers' rights and the right to dissent, along with a focus on law and order accompanied by prison expansion on a scale unprecedented in Canadian history.
More than one in 10 Canadians currently has a criminal record, according to the Canadian Criminal Justice Association. The majority of them suffer the consequent and ongoing emotional, social and financial impacts related to criminalization. Their families are affected along with them. As more Canadians are criminalized and experience encroachments on freedoms, as well as expanded cuts to social services, the more desperate and angry people will become and, consequently, the more ready they will be to resist. We should not have to go through this.
To ensure the plans of the greedy and powerful are not thwarted, social control must be continuously ramped up. Judicial and prison expansion agendas, accompanied by deregulation, ensure that profits through prison privatization flow more freely. Prison privatization is attractive to corporations because they are able to attain certain things they could only dream of elsewhere in "free" society. Prisoners often don't have to be paid, nor are they permitted to form unions, and, furthermore, many are restricted politically and forbidden to vote. These are gifts to those who wish to see capitalism entirely unrestrained by "irritating" controls like progressive taxation, good wages and human rights.
Contracts awarded to build and run the prisons are not the only things allowing firms to profit from mass criminalization. Corporations also bid on service and supply contracts, which can include inmate canteens, food and telephone services, health care and for-profit substance abuse programs.
Slowed but not stopped: Bill C-10 passes the Senate
Bill C-10 passed the final of three readings in the House of Commons this past December. Despite pressure from the Tories to have it also sail through the Senate, our Senators insisted the Bill be given adequate time for research and investigation. This may have had as much to do with political pressure from voters as with any sense of democratic or moral obligation. There have been many campaigns, rallies and petitions against Bill C-10 and all of its earlier incarnations.
Initiatives by LeadNow.ca, for example, involved rallies at offices of MPs across the country, a petition opposing C-10, and a letter-writing campaign directed at Senators asking them to give appropriate and fair consideration to the bill. Unfortunately, very late last night that process came to an end and a majority of Senators passed Bill C-10. The bill now returns to the House for final approval of several changes made by Senators.
Sheryl Jarvis is a middle-aged, white, single parent, woman with a history entrenched in poverty and violence. She has firsthand knowledge of the issues surrounding problematic drug use and imprisonment, having survived both. She is a recent college graduate, and studied social work within a philosophy of critical feminist theory and anti-oppression. Issues important to her are harm reduction and prisoner rights for which she advocates through community organizing, committee work, and critical writing. You can read more of Sheryl's writing on her blog.