Hanes: Ruling on Quebec City mosque killer prompts a reckoning of our own

Days after the slaughter of 19 schoolchildren in Texas left the world heartbroken and outraged, a Supreme Court of Canada decision is forcing Quebecers to consider our own painful history of violence.

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After a week in which many Canadians were left heartbroken, anguished and outraged over the senseless slaughter of 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, we are now being forced to reckon with the painful fallout from one of our own horrific mass shootings.

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The night a gunman opened fire in the Center culturel islamique in Quebec City marked us forever. It shattered any illusions that we are immune from the polarization, hatred and intolerance on the rise around the world — or the indiscriminate violence unleashed with such shocking frequency in the country next door.

But five years later, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the shooter who murdered six worshipers and seriously injured five others on that frigid night in January 2017 must only serve 25 years before becoming eligible for parole.

The high court on Friday unanimously struck down a 2011 provision in the Criminal Code allowing consecutive life sentences. In a decision that is now the law of the land, Chief Justice Richard Wagner called piling on prison terms in 25-year increments “cruel and unusual punishment” that is “incompatible with human dignity.”

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“The imposition of excessive sentences that fulfill 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,Wagner wrote. “A punishment that can never be carried out is contrary to the fundamental values ​​of Canadian society.”

So from now on in Canada, whether a killer murders one, six or 100 innocent people, 25 years is the maximum time they have to serve before seeking release. It’s important to note that if designated dangerous or long-term offenders, murderers who remain threats to public safety can be kept in prison longer. But they still have the right to a parole hearing after 25 years, or between a quarter and a third of the average Canadian’s life expectancy.

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Twenty-five years has long been the standard life sentence in Canada and has often been criticized as inadequate, be it for serial killers, child predators or terrorists. But redemption, rehabilitation and “respect for the inherent worth of each individual” are cornerstones of our justice system, as Wagner put it. And those principles are worth defending.

Yet you don’t have to be a vengeful stickler for law and order to feel it just doesn’t add up to hand one life term to a killer of six — or 10, for that matter. (The Toronto van attacker, who is awaiting sentencing, will now get 25 years for mowing down 10 pedestrians in 2018.)

Twenty-five years will pass quickly for the six widows and 17 children of Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti. They have already lasted five years without their loved ones. According to officials at the Quebec City mosque, one of the greatest fears of the families is that the orphaned children could someday encounter their fathers’ killer free on the street.

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Aymen Derbali won’t be able to get out of his wheelchair after 25 years. The seven bullets he took at the mosque made him a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

Where is the balance between a sentence being “cruel and unusual” and reflecting the gravity of the crime?

Quebec Superior Court Justice François Huot, who presided over the sentencing of the mosque shooter after his guilty plea in 2019, struggled with this question. Huot agreed 50, 75 or 100 years in prison would be disproportionate. But the judge also found a single 25-year life sentence “completely obscures the number of people who died, the unspeakable violence used, the underlying motives of the accused and the dramatic repercussions of (his) actions on the members of the grieving families, the Muslim community in Quebec and society in general.” Huot got out a biblical 40-year penalty. It was overturned on appeal.

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If no distinction is made between killing one and killing scores, then a 25-year life sentence is surely as meaningless as the excessive penalty the Supreme Court so categorically decried.

If the objectives of “denunciation and deterrence… lose all of their functional value” beyond a certain threshold of incarceration, are they not also undermined beneath it?

If the punishment does not match the evil of the act, does that not likewise “bring the administration of justice into disrepute and undermine public confidence in the rationality and fairness of the criminal justice system”?

And if we fail to properly recognize that a mass shooting is trauma perpetrated against us all, is that not equally “contrary to the fundamental values ​​of Canadian society”?

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This is one of those occasions when high-minded legal principles and basic common sense find themselves at odds.

There are no easy answers at the best of times — and especially not when emotions are running so high.

When it announced the date for its decision, the Supreme Court surely didn’t anticipate it would be dropping its far-reaching judgment at the end of a week full of such carnage.

If the massacre in Texas has prompted soul searching in the US about the mind-numbing ubiquity of school shootings, the Supreme Court ruling has rubbed old wounds raw in Canada, where we are confronting our own tragic history of violence.

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