Law students oppose federal crime bill

Law society trying to rally other institutions

Justice critic Jack Harris and fellow opposition members feel this bill, now under Senate review, was rushed through the House of Commons. The federal government argues most of the bill’s aspects had already been discussed in previous debates. Harris was part responsible for filibustering the bill’s life while in the House of Commons. (Photo: Matthias Brennan)

A student from Dalhousie University told visiting NDP Members of Parliament on Monday their law society was rallying others across the country to oppose the federal Conservatives' omnibus crime bill.

Second-year law student Dan Manchee said Dalhousie students have collectively shrugged at near-universal opposition to the bill from the expert community. There were individuals who spoke in favour of this bill including RCMP officers and victims groups. But to Manchee, it's beyond contention. He said an ignorance of statistics "in itself is an affront to students" and was writing to other law student associations to join in opposition.

About 30 other people joined Manchee, mostly law students, at Weldon Law Building Monday morning to hear Jack Harris, NDP justice critic, speak on the bill.

Bill C-10 aims to increase protection for children from sexual predators, increase penalties for organized drug crime including mandatory minimum sentences, restrict conditional sentences like house arrest, support victims of terrorism, and bring changes to the International Transfer of Offenders Act.

Manchee pushed for and won a law society resolution in December to oppose the bill. From what Dalhousie society President Scotty Lennox recalls, it was the first time the law society has taken a stand on external issues.

In passing the resolution, Dalhousie society jumped on board with the Canadian Bar Association. In October, the CBA completed a 100-page report explaining the negative consequences of the bill.

Bill C-10 raises two main issues for Manchee: Human rights are at risk, and the fact that the federal government is disregarding statistics.

Manchee told the forum he has alerted other Canadian law school student associations. He heard back from ten universities including the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta and Osgoode Hall at York. McGill Law and the University of Toronto also replied. All of these schools' students associations expressed they were considering action.

Despite a consensus developing among Dalhousie law students, Manchee says, "For some reason we're not tapping into that energy, that potential." The University of Manitoba is the only other university to link arms with Dalhousie by passing a resolution opposing Bill C-10.

"The fact that we study the law and not engage in our legal system in the broader sense, it doesn't make sense to me," he said.

Harris called the bill ironic, saying in fact, the bill won't make streets safer. Within the bill, he noted a significant change: no more pardons. Instead the government calls them record suspension holds. Harris said this has "no redemptive effect whatsoever." He also argued "Mandatory minimum sentences take away judicial discretion."

Following Harris's talk, Manchee posed the question to the justice critic: "We passed a resolution, sent a news release, we spoke with other universities, what else can we do as law students?" Harris suggested demonstrations and told a story about petitioners driving from Fredericton to Ottawa to present their signatures. Halifax MP Megan Leslie, who helped host the event, hollered "the media!" But it was others seated around Manchee who provided the most support.

Stella Lord represented the Community Coalition to End Poverty-Nova Scotia. She voiced concern over potential non-restorative justice practices of the bill and the impacts to the criminalization and incarceration of people, particularly in minority communities or those vulnerable to poverty. The concerns she has heard are mostly toward street youth, African Nova Scotians, Aboriginal Peoples; and low-income women. Manchee agreed and stressed the bill raises "problems for mentally ill, aboriginal populations, visibly minority people in Canada; these are issues [students] should identify with."

The Conservatives hold a majority in the Senate as well the House, so lobbying the Senate will more than likely fall short, but Dalhousie criminal justice professor Archie Kaiser believes the best chance for effect lies in speaking out to provincial governments. He explains how provinces are "charged with prosecuting offences, so [that means] the right to make determinations on what charges are to be laid and how they're prosecuted in the courts... [This] includes provincial attorneys general who instruct police, and departments of public prosecution. Both elements of government would have a role." Kaiser says there's talk on the bill within classes and agrees with the consensus Manchee is seeing among law students: "I think the general atmosphere has been one of skepticism and opposition to the bill."


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