Two of Canada’s worst multiple killers were sentenced Friday. Both will almost certainly die in prison. But for all intents and purposes, it was two missed opportunities to send a powerful message about the severity and abhorrent nature of their crimes.
Just over seven years ago, the previous government passed the Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act. The law allows for the imposition of consecutive periods of parole eligibility for those convicted of multiple homicides. Murder, of course, has always meant an automatic life sentence in our justice system, but we cannot ignore even the mere possibility of mass killers or serial killers being granted parole at some point. Moreover, there is the emotional toll these parole hearings take on the families of the victims. Sparing them that anguish is a laudable goal.
Going into Friday, there existed the possibility that not one but two of the longest sentences in Canadian history would be handed down. Bruce McArthur, who preyed upon members of Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village and brutally murdered eight men, learned his fate in a Toronto courtroom. Meanwhile, in Quebec City, Alexandre Bissonnette was sentenced for murdering six people — and attempting to murder six others — in a mosque in January 2017.
In both instances, the judge had the option of imposing a parole eligibility of up to 150 years. In fact, in Bissonnette’s case, that’s exactly what the Crown had asked for. Instead, what we got fell far short of that.
Despite describing McArthur’s crimes as “pure evil,” the judge decided on concurrent sentences, meaning McArthur’s parole eligibility is 25 years. Granted, he would be 91 at that point and there’s a reasonable possibility that he won’t live long enough to even apply for parole, but it still sends the wrong message.
The same can be said of the sentence for Bissonnette. The judge in his case took the curious approach of deciding that the maximum term of parole eligibility would be inappropriate but still went above the 25-year threshold in setting parole eligibility at 40 years. Bissonnette is not yet 30 so it’s certainly possible that he will live long enough to apply for parole.
But the judge in Bissonette’s case has muddled all of this even further. The parole eligibility will run concurrently on the first five counts of first-degree murder, and the extra 15 years will come from the sixth charge. But the minimum parole eligibility for first-degree murder is 25 years, not 15 to 40 years. A more logical and appropriate term would have been 50 years.
The judge also decided that sentencing Bissonnette to die behind bars would violate the charter provision against “cruel and unusual punishment.” But if McArthur can wait until he’s 91 to apply for parole, why can’t Bissonnette? Furthermore, we all know that there is a select group of Canada’s worst offenders who most certainly will die in prison. The charter is no obstacle to keeping them locked up.
What makes these two sentences all the more puzzling is the fact that we have seen other cases with fewer victims where longer sentences of parole eligibility have been handed down. There are at least four instances now where a parole eligibility of 75 years has been applied in cases in which there were three murder victims.
Given that, it makes no sense that McArthur or Bissonnette would receive a lesser sentence, given both the magnitude of their crimes and the fact that specific communities were targeted.
As an Ontario judge ruled last year in upholding consecutive terms of parole eligibility, “such offences cause greater harm, with greater moral culpability, than cases involving but a single murder, and therefore are often deserving of greater punishment.”
Therefore, it only stands to reason that the principle of greater harm and greater moral culpability deserving greater punishment would be applied in the McArthur and Bissonnette cases.
Furthermore, there is the principle of denunciation, which, as the Supreme Court has noted, “mandates that a sentence should also communicate society’s condemnation of that particular offender’s conduct.” In other words, the sentence needs to send a message. Certainly, in these two cases, there was even more of an impetus to do so. It’s understandable that the families of the victims in both cases are left feeling confused and frustrated. Why should the deaths of their loved ones count for less?
McArthur and Bissonnette have both been found guilty of their crimes and will be held accountable for what they did. But it still feels like we came up just short of true justice.
Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.
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