Minimum Sentences: a Liberal Invention?

In all the discussion surrounding minimum sentencing, I was surprised to read in the House of Commons Debates the following statement by a Liberal MP,” I remember that it was a Liberal minister of justice who brought in the whole concept of mandatory minimums, which at the revolving door of the Conservatives' press circle was as if it was invented by them.”. This comment piqued my curiosity, so I did a bit of historical research on the introduction of minimum sentences in Canada’s Criminal Code.

It’s always interesting to know where we started in order to be able to see how far we have come, but especially to find out whether minimum sentencing is merely Conservative ideology as the Liberals claim.

Liberal criticism

For some time now we’ve been hearing some very harsh criticism about this principle of minimum sentences. In December, during the debates in the House of Commons on Bill C-10, just before it was passed at third reading, the Liberal Party justice and human rights critic, the Hon. Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister, said that the principle of minimum sentences was an abomination that we absolutely must avoid. He maintained that minimum sentences would have a negative impact.

Based on their criticism and comments, we could reasonably assume that the Liberals are staunchly against minimum sentences. According to them, the desire to impose minimum sentences is ideological and flies in the face of facts.

Parties unanimously in favour of minimum sentences

Most of the minimum sentences introduced in Bill C 10 originated in former Bill C-54, the Protecting Children from Sexual Predators Act, which was introduced seven months ago. On March 11, 2011, all parties represented in the House of Commons—Liberal, NDP, Bloc and Conservative—voted in favour of the bill and the minimum sentences therein.

Minimum sentences through the years

Between 1892 and 1921, minimum sentences were introduced into the Criminal Code by Conservative governments on 11 occasions. It was only in 1922 that the Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King became the first Liberal Prime Minister to have a minimum sentence of six months' imprisonment adopted. For what type of offence? For the importation, possession, manufacture or distribution of narcotics and opium. At the time the Liberals seemed really concerned about drug trafficking. They were the first ones to pass a minimum sentence for drug trafficking.

Since the start of the 20th century, minimum sentences have been introduced on a regular basis in Canada. But do you know which political party has introduced the largest number of minimum sentences in the history of our country?

Since 1892, 53 minimum sentences have been introduced into the Criminal Code. Of that number, 18 were introduced by Conservative governments, and 35 by Liberal governments. Therefore, the Liberals have used minimum sentences as punitive measures and deterrents twice as often as the Conservatives. And which prime minister resorted to minimum sentences most often? Jean Chrétien stands in first place with 11 minimum sentences. Paul Martin comes in second with 9 and Pierre Elliott Trudeau comes in third with 7 minimum sentences.

I have some difficulty understanding the Liberals’ reasoning when they try to depict the Conservatives as ideologues advocating minimum sentences; the Liberals are the champions in that respect.

A Liberal Justice Minister champions minimum sentences

Talking about champions, I have another quiz: Which Minister of Justice passed the largest number of minimum sentences in the history of our country? None other than the current Liberal Justice Critic in the House of Commons, Irwin Cotler. The MP who is now condemning the introduction of minimum sentences, introduced nine minimum sentences in one year. He is closely followed by his Liberal predecessor, the Hon. Allan Rock, who introduced eight minimum sentences during his years as Justice Minister.

In the end, one must realize that the only principle is really: Do as I say, not as I do!We live in a society governed by the rule of law, and people expect parliamentarians to pass the best laws to protect them. When it comes to certain social evils, the citizens who elected their representatives refuse to let partisan interests taint the decision-making process. Governments must listen to them. When a system applied to certain types of crimes has gone too far in one direction and no longer achieves its expected results and objectives, we, as parliamentarians, must restore balance.

Today, Canadians are asking us to protect children from sexual predators and drug dealers, so we have to send a signal to the courts that society no longer tolerates these aberrant behaviours and that the penalties associated with these crimes should be harsher.

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