By Crystal Whitney
If Canada had the death penalty, men like David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin, who were exonerated of murder after spending years in jail, would have been dead before they could prove their innocence.
Recent high-profile cases in which DNA evidence freed those sentenced to serve time in prison reveal a biased and fallible Canadian criminal justice system.
In October, Gregory Parsons was released after serving seven years in a Newfoundland prison for the 1991 murder of his mother. In 1997, Daivd Milgaard was released after serving 23 years for the rape and murder of a Saskatchewan nursing aide in 1969. And in Toronto Guy Paul Morin was exonerated in 1995 of the murder of his 9-year-old neighbour.
Still, the Ontario government refuses to reinvestigate criminal convictions on the basis of new DNA evidence. James Lockyer, the Toronto criminal lawyer who represented both Milgaard and Morin, says police excess and myopia are systemic problems that kept his clients form receiving a fair trial.
Abuse of power among the police force is nothing new. In the 1970s, Toronto’s police hold-up squad were infamous for their “roughhouse tactics” to get confessions from suspects. After a public campaign to disband the unit, police officers were held accountable if their interviews were not recorded or taped. Allegations of intimidation and violence against the unit decreased sharply.
But, police still have carte blanche to strip search anyone they suspect may be concealing weapons or evidence. Recently, people arrested on minor offences, strip searched and then released have come forward to protest the arbitrary nature of the searches. The police say they are just doing their job.
In the 1950s, Canada admitted former members of the Nazi party and members of Hitler’s murderous SS force without question and turned a blind eye to their wartime activity for the next 40 years.
Then, in 1997, US private investor Steven Rambaum tracked down taped confessions from some 50 suspected war criminals. Dateline NBC and 60 Minutes picked up on the scandal. Rambaum found 157 former Nazis — mostly from Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia — living in Canada.
A year earlier, Justice Minister Allan Rock dismissed Rambaum’s claims of the number of war criminals living Canada. Rock was confident the 1986 Deschenes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals did a thorough job. (As a result of the Deschenes Commission, 21 war crimes-related proceedings have taken place since 1987, with four people charged but no convictions).
Rambaum tacked down his taped confessions of criminals who eluded the Canadian government’s best efforts for 40 years using sophisticated techniques, like looking up their names in a phone book! He was able to get taped confessions because these men believe to this day they have done nothing wrong.
After US media reports on “Canada’s dark secret” the government set up a $50 million war crimes unit to speed up the proceedings of war crime related charges.
The government of Alberta forcibly sterilized more than 2,800 people they considered too mentally or physically defective to reproduce. By preventing these people form ever having children, the government hoped to create a more highly evolved Albertan population.
Introduced in 1928, the sterilization act was created when the idea that selective breeding would improve the human race was quite common. But after the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the idea of eugenics lost favour and the Nuremberg trials defined the practice as a war crime.
That didn’t stop the province of Alberta from continuing its sterilization program a full 28 years after the end of the war. When it did scrap the act, instead of negotiating a compensation package for the victims, the government tried to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to limit the settlements to the 700 victims who were suing the province. The government tried to weasel out of its obligations by saying the act no longer existed and victims had no claim to compensation. Only public outcry forced them to back down and grant compensation.
The sterilization act took on an even more sinister tone in the last year of its existence, when it is reported that aboriginal people, who represented only 2.5 per cent of the population accounted for 25 per cent of those sterilized. According to the United Nations definition, this constitutes genocide, a serious crime against humanity.