Canada's new crime policy: An exercise in pretended order


Very early on in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she describes a housing project in East Harlem with a “conspicuous rectangular lawn” that was a source of anger for the tenants. The lawn had become a symbol for the thinking behind the project itself. Nobody wanted it, a local told Jacobs, but the builders didn’t care. “We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even,” they said. “Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at the grass and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!’”

The tenant’s assessment was more than just a comment on the misguided beautification of the area. Instead, Jacobs argues, “There is a quality meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

As pretended order was to a Harlem housing project half a century ago, so it seems to be with Canada’s Conservative government’s latest foray into crime legislation. The Safe Streets and Communities Act (or C-10 as it’s known procedurally), is an omnibus bill composed of nine different acts the Conservatives were unable to pass during their time as a minority government. Its goal is to reign in everything from child sex offenders and small-time drug dealers, to “out-of-control young people”.

Various parts of the bill have already come under scrutiny, but more important are the numbers – particularly the fact that the government seems to be ignoring them.

First, is the cost of the bill. Nobody is currently aware of what the exact full implementation costs of the legislation will be. Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has only just started reviewing the bill, which the government has promised to pass within the first 100 sitting days of Parliament. He posited it could cost billions. Earlier this week, Page pointed out that the government’s budget makes no adjustment for the legislation, and called the move “unprecedented”.

Included in that unknown cost is the price that will be eventually paid by the provinces. The bill includes changes to Canada’s mandatory minimum sentences, which could mean that more prisoners will eventually be transferred from the federal penal system to those maintained by the provinces – a handful of which, including Ontario and Manitoba, are holding elections this fall.

The second numbers problem for the Harper government has to do with statistics, and that they are generally positive. This summer, Statistics Canada released numbers showing that crime rates in Canada are falling, continuing a trend present for the last decade. Faced with the news, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s spokeswoman said: “We don’t use these statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals.”

The Conservatives argue Canadians want action – even, apparently, if in some cases, none is necessary. Since the latest session of Parliament began, Nicholson has told the Commons time and again that Canadians voted for a government that would push the legislation through. They aim to do that.

Safe streets and communities and fewer out-of-control youths. Isn’t it wonderful. Canadians have everything.

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