Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Great Mosque of Quebec on Jan. 29, 2017, armed with a handgun and a semi-automatic weapon and opened fire on worshippers, killing six people and seriously injuring five others.
The cold-blooded murders were driven by hatred, racism and Islamophobia. Khaled Belkacemi, Ibrahima and Mamadou Tanou Barry, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti lost their lives. The senseless killings, which shook the nation to its core, served as a reminder that Canada is not immune from the mass shootings that occur with obscene frequency in the United States, including last week’s murder of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Mr. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and received a mandatory life sentence in prison. Ordinarily, he would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years behind bars. However, the Crown prosecutor in the case sought to keep Mr. Bissonnette locked up indefinitely through a provision in the Criminal Code – enacted in 2011 by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government – that allows courts to impose consecutive periods of parole ineligibility when someone is convicted of more than one count of first-degree murder.
The provision meant some offenders would have no chance of parole for 50, 75, 100 years, or more – usually well beyond their life expectancy.
The Supreme Court of Canada struck down as unconstitutional that section of the Criminal Code last week in the Bissonnette case. It ruled that imposing penalties that outlive the life expectancy of most offenders is "absurd" and that depriving even the "vilest of criminals" a mechanism to re-enter society is a violation of human dignity.
"The imposition of excessive sentences that fulfil no function does nothing more than bring the administration of justice into disrepute and undermine public confidence in the rationality and fairness of the criminal justice system," the top court wrote in its unanimous decision.
Canada does not have an eye-for-eye justice system, nor should it seek one. That was left behind when the country abolished the death penalty in 1976. For first-degree murder, it was replaced with a sentence of life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 25 years. The change sought to balance the sentencing principles of deterrence, denunciation and the separation of offenders from society with the notion that people have the potential, over time, to rehabilitate.
The top court ruled correctly that leaving offenders with no possibility of parole is inconsistent with those sentencing principles and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"The objectives of denunciation and deterrence are not better served by the imposition of excessive sentences," the court wrote. "Beyond a certain threshold, these objectives lose all of their functional value, especially when the sentence far exceeds human life expectancy."
Parole eligibility does not guarantee an offender’s release from prison. It is up to an independent parole board to consider many factors, including public safety, before granting a conditional release.
One of Canada’s most notorious murderers, Paul Bernardo – who is serving a life sentence for the torture, kidnapping and killing of Kristen French, 15, and Leslie Mahaffy, 14, in the early 1990s – has been eligible for parole since 2018. He has been twice denied parole and is unlikely to be released any time soon. It will be up to a parole board to determine whether Mr. Bernardo has gained sufficient insight into the seriousness of his crimes to be released safely into the community.
The same process and sentencing principles should apply in all first-degree murder convictions, including that of Mr. Bissonnette.