Trotting out the bogeyman

Russell Wangersky
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“I don’t know if the statistics demonstrate that crime is down … I’m focused on danger.”

That’s federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, speaking to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs about the Conservatives’ “tough on crime” legislation.

If nothing else, the next few years are going to have more than their fair share of unintentional hilarity — because unless I completely misunderstood that particular quote, Toews has just confirmed what opponents of the new crime legislation have been saying all along.

And that’s that the legislation has nothing to do with crime, and everything to do with marketing.

You could parse it a little differently, and still get the gist: “I don’t care about the facts: I’m focused on the fear.”

It’s a wonderfully knee-jerk kind of way to deal with the public, but you have to wonder what kind of end result it will bring.

And it’s not only in crime bills. Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried a bit of it himself this past week: despite plenty of research that shows Canada’s social programs aren’t in the kind of threat that those of our European neighbours are, Harper came up with the sudden need to bring Old Age Security spending “under control” to save our entire social safety net.

Once again, forget the facts, and spread the fear. (Of course, it helps to build the fear yourself. Who knew our entire social care system was in danger before Harper trotted out the need to save it from itself?)

But back to crime. Rewind a little further, back to when Vic Toews actually did realize that statistics demonstrated that crime rates were down to levels last seen in the early ’70s. (He must have since forgotten about those statistics, because he clearly doesn’t know about them anymore) he said that the Tory crime bill was to help address the increase in unreported crimes.

“We see this continuing trend of more and more crimes going unreported, and that … I believe is an indication of a lack of confidence in the justice system,” Toews told CTV in September 2010.

“And that is why our government is taking the measures that we are taking.”

All right. To get this straight, then: it’s the increase in unreported crime (that’s a great thing to try and measure in any form — it’s big, it’s bad, it’s … unreported, hence statistically, well, void) and the increase in … wait for it … danger.

Yep, I’ve noticed a tremendous rise in danger. Big pool of it just the other day outside the office — I had to cower in my car for hours.

All in all, it makes about as much sense as having the direction our crime legislation goes in being set by victims of crime.

That may sound more than a little heartless, but bringing victims of crime in as drivers of the debate is a little like the old media trick of going to a town where the major employer is shutting down and asking people how they feel about it. Just how exactly do you think they are going to feel?

And yes, I was once sent on one of those chases by a major Canadian media outlet — I was asked to find a trawler crewmember from Trepassey, preferably married to a Trepassey plant worker, to ask them how they felt about the shutdown of the FPI deepwater operation there. It was good money, but in the end, I turned the job down. You knew what the answers would be before you even asked the questions. (“So, you lost both hands in a sawmill … how do you feel about those darned saws?”)

With all due respect, letting the victims of crime dictate the punishment for criminals — or trotting them out to defend the revenge-based need for heavier sentences — makes no more sense than letting people convicted of crimes set their own punishments.

Why? Because both are directly involved.

Would we let businesses set their own tax rates? (Well, maybe that’s a bad example, because it sometimes looks as though they already do.) Would you allow oil companies to do environmental reviews of their own projects? Would we empanel a group of people in this province with thousands of dollars of Highway Traffic Act tickets and let them decide whose tickets should be written off? You get the point.

The problem is that we have lots of numbers about crime rates in this country. We also have lots and lots of people who deal with crime, and who try to balance deterrence with punishment, recidivism with rehabilitation. And essentially, we’re telling all those people, with all their skills and experience and knowledge, that what really matters is not the fact, but the fiction.

Instead, we’re going to legislate based on the monster under the bed. We haven’t seen it, we don’t know where it is, but it’s dangerous.

Billions of dollars for dust-bunnies and a lost sock or two.

Next time, why don’t we pick a government that deals with real issues, instead of cashing in crassly and politically on our worst fears?

Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Senate Committee on Legal, Conservatives, Tory CTV FPI

Geographic location: Canada, Trepassey

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