The Bernardo Affair and the Tories


The Bernardo affair continues to nourish the Conservative Party’s hunger for electoral advantage, as the linked 6 minute video and news article reveal.

Conservative MP Frank Caputo’s transparently disingenuous video feebly poses as a good faith initiative to alert the public to a correctional system gone awry, but quickly reveals itself to be an extended campaign attack ad aimed at the Liberal Government. This member of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, no doubt traveling, eating, and lodging on the public dime, has exploited and perverted the special permission which the Corrections and Conditional Release Act gives legislators and judges to enter penitentiaries: rather than exercise s.72’s mandate to protect prisoners from abuse through external oversight of the system, he opted to invade Paul Bernardo’s cell and take inventory of his private property, then sniff around the grounds for evidence that Correctional Service Canada commits the high crime of allowing sentence-serving persons some small diversions as they while away the empty years. What a pathetic display. I am particularly entertained by the laughably phony expressions of astonishment and revulsion when MP Caputo discovers, while poking around in Bernardo’s cell, that the prisoner approaching the cell door is…gasp…Bernardo. I guess he couldn’t see that coming.

Pathetic also is the pretense that Conservative leader Poilievre and his party have not already received satisfactory explanations of the Bernardo transfer to medium, which CSC’s official review found was decided quite correctly by the competent authority exercising a statutory power beyond the reach of the government’s influence or orientation. On this point, Caputo dissembles shamelessly, as if mentored by a certain American ex-president.

Prison lawyers and advocates have actively been debating the wisdom of a public reply, fearing it could draw new attention to the video by people who had not already heard of it. We had hoped the despicable video would merely excite Caputo’s MAGA-type supporters, then fade away. But that has not happened. We learn from the linked article that a clutch of opportunistic Conservatives, supported by a fellow traveler from the Bloc Québecois, now are forcing Parliament’s public safety committee to hold an emergency meeting on March 11 to reconsider access to medium security for notorious violent criminals. Their primary concern is not that a medium security environment could enable the offenders to escape; nor even that the offenders in question have failed to satisfy the statutory and policy criteria for transfer. These politicians object to the use of medium in notorious cases because it doesn’t punish enough. Their argument is that offenders such as these should normally serve their full sentence (usually life) in the least comfortable, most punishing setting the system offers. Throw away case management, cascading to lower security, CCRA s.4’s ‘least restrictive measures consistent with the protection of society, staff members and offenders.’ Ensure that the worst offenders are severely chastised throughout the period of incapacitation.

We’ve turned a corner here. Even in the hardy day of the cat ‘o nine tails displayed in the Kingston Penitentiary museum, frank, unforgiving punishment was not used as payback for the crime, but only to quell refractory behaviour during the sentence. Of course, we’ve already seen the sadistic demand of punishment for punishment’s sake in recent times–Poilievre clamored for it following the Bernardo transfer. CSC’s official Bernardo review was supposed to disarm that perspective and put it to bed, leaving Poilievre looking like a hysteric. Now we find that the Conservatives are serious about calling for a sea change in penitentiary management, if not achievable now, then during a Conservative term in office. I am not aware of a moment when sadism was Canada’s official correctional policy, but, as we see in the U.S., the times appear to be opening the door to novel and surprising possibilities.