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Unconstitutional mandatory minimums and the role of pandering progressive politicians

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In the wake of the great news that the Supreme Court had ruled that the gun related mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of the Tackling Violent Crime Act were unconstitutional, the decision was widely heralded as a blow to the Harper government's reactionary "get-tough-on-crime": agenda by both the media and progressives.

And it is.

But it is also a lesson in how reactionary agendas are often built with the aid of pandering "progressives" who capitulate to these narratives out of what are purely cynical and crass electoral considerations.

The Tackling Violent Crime Act was passed after a wave of media and right wing political and pundit hysteria born out of the so-called "Year of the Gun" of 2005 and especially after the tragic killing of innocent bystander Jane Creba by a stray bullet during a shooting on Boxing Day of that year.

Harper and the Conservatives, of course, immediately seized on the shooting to advance their electoral ambitions at the time:

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, meanwhile, blamed the growth in crimes involving guns, gangs and drugs a consequence of the Liberal government’s inaction, and its "failure to deal effectively with crime."

"This government is running a revolving door sentencing system," said Harper before highlighting again his party’s pledges to introduce mandatory prison sentences for serious crimes.

Sadly, however, he was not alone. As a rabble.ca piece about a community meeting looking at gang violence at the time noted:

After the Boxing Day shooting that killed Jane Creba, a 15-year-old white woman, [Rinaldo] Walcott says all politicians started advocating harsh penalties for youth with guns -- even traditionally left-wing figures like David Miller and federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

"All three levels of government came out with law-and-order responses in the aftermath of Jane Creba's death. Our premier, Dalton McGuinty, found $50 million plus to invest in the justice system," says Walcott.

"Our mayor, who is normally leaning left, took a right approach and started talking law-and-order too. And he's the one in the city of Toronto that we have to make accountable."

The stampede to the law-and-order narrative was crossing party lines and despite the fact that the alleged crime wave was actually overstated and despite the clearly dog-whistle racial politics that were at play, progressive politicians bought into it and fed it. As was, again, noted at the time of the rush to facilitate new "anti-crime" legislation:

"They're not attacking the real problem, which is poverty, lack of education, affordable housing -- the root cause of crime," said Canadian law professor Wesley Crichlow, who researches gang violence among black youth. "Their proposals are purely reactionary."

In the end, and it is important to both remember and reflect on this, the act, along with its now unconstitutional provisions, was passed with the full support of the Liberals and the Jack Layton led NDP in a minority parliament. It became law in early 2008.

They could have stopped this bill, but they made the choice not to.

The sole parliamentarian with the courage of their convictions who stood against it was NDP MP Bill Siksay, who was disciplined for this by Layton.

This is far from the only example of Canadian "progressives" aiding and abetting right wing narratives -- but it is a particularly egregious and vile one.

As we try to turn the tide against the right-wing ideas that dominate our political discourse we need to demand much better from those politicians who try to stake a claim to being on the "left" -- a demand that would include them actually standing up for basic principles even when this might, in the short term, cost them some votes.


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