Prime Minister whips up fear of criminally insane killers
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion – While Canadian from all walks of life strive to combat the stigma of mental illness, Stephen Harper exploits public fear of criminally insane killers on the loose.
Feb 15 2013. By: Carol Goar Editorial Board
Across the nation, employers, workers, doctors, lawyers, academics, community activists, caregivers and brave individuals raised their voices this week in a collective effort to combat the stigma of mental illness.
There was one discordant note. Last Friday, Stephen Harper announced his latest tough-on-crime bill. It targeted people found “not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder.”
The Prime Minister told a Burnaby, B.C., audience he would change the Criminal Code, giving prosecutors the power to designate some of these offenders as too dangerous to be released, meaning they would forfeit the right to an annual review of their mental health and the privilege of becoming eligible for unescorted passes. He would also require provincial review boards, which decide whether they can be discharged from psychiatric facilities, to place public safety above all other considerations, including the individual’s constitutionally enshrined rights.
Legally Harper’s proposed amendments, while regressive, are not overtly discriminatory. It was his rhetoric that raised eyebrows — and hackles — among mental health advocates. “This will ensure that not criminally responsible accused people found to be too dangerous to release are no longer a threat to their victims or Canadian communities,” he said. “We’ve heard from Canadians loud and clear, something here is very wrong.”
He posed for photos alongside Stacy Galt of Merritt, whose cousin and her three children were in her home when Allan Schoenborn , the youngsters’ father, stabbed them to death. He had been granted an escorted day pass from the Port Coquitlam psychiatric hospital.
“Given the love we have for our children, one cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering this kind of event brings about,” Harper told reporters. The tragedy exposed “glaring gaps” in the justice system, he added.
To demonstrate his commitment to community safety, the Prime Minister brought along a 10-page list of the bills his government had enacted to fight crime. There was legislation targeting sexual predators, terrorists, drug dealers, child pornographers, violent young offenders, street racers, white collar criminals and gang members. The implication — unstated, of course — was that mentally ill offenders belonged on the list.
Bill Trudell , chair of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, was one of the first to speak out, calling Harper’s announcement “coldly political and out of touch.” Society has become much more sensitive to the plight of those living with mental illness, he pointed out. And psychiatry has made remarkable advances in treatment. “His (Harper’s) suggestion that there are glaring gaps in the justice system and his misuse of victims as a backdrop to his legislative tough-on-crime agenda is not only insensitive, but politically irresponsible.”
Harper’s announcement was designed to tap into public anxiety. In recent memory, there have been three gruesome homicides by people with mental illness. In 2008, Schoenborn killed his children and Vince Li, who had schizophrenia, decapitated his seatmate on a Greyhound bus headed for Winnipeg. In 2009, Guy Turcotte, a Montreal cardiologist, brutally stabbed his two children in a bout of depression.
But none of these tragedies exposed “glaring gaps” in the justice system. The B.C. Review Board failed to contact Schoenborn’s ex-wife and children before granting him a day pass; a deadly human error. The Tribunal Adminstratif du Québec was duped by Turcotte, a long-time manipulator, into believing he posed no danger to society – a fatal misjudgment . No one knew Li was schizophrenic when he killed his seatmate. Harper’s legislation would have made no difference in his case.
More tellingly, the Prime Minister made no attempt to put these headline-making incidents in perspective. They constituted an infinitesimally small percentage of the cases adjudicated by provincial review boards. Ontario’s review board, for example, holds roughly 2,000 hearings a year, carefully weighing the evidence presented by the Crown, the accused, the hospital and other witnesses and striking a balance between the rights of the individual and the protection of the public. In the vast majority of cases, it gets it right.
It hurt to see Harper seize on a law that isn’t broken, reinforcing a stereotype so many Canadians are striving to eliminate.
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