Canadian and American Justice

By Fred W. Lipschitz, Publisher of The Notional Pest

Bailiff, bring the guilty bastard in

A recent PBS documentary told horrifying stories about US criminal justice as applied to the incarceration and execution of men (usually black) in certain southern states. In some cases, executions took place despite the state's prior knowledge that the conviction was based solely on flimsy or perjured evidence. The use of suborned witnesses appears to be a common practice. In other cases, the prosecution either ignored available exculpatory evidence or introduced 'evidence' that to any fair-minded person was demonstrably false — false that is, to anyone but an all-white jury fixed in its attitudes towards black defendants. In one disturbing instance of justice gone awry, the evidence—DNA taken from the accused and the murdered victim—should have exonerated the man or at least have called for a new trial. However, the state's Supreme Court on appeal, despite having knowledge of the man's almost certain innocence, refused to stay "the course of justice". 

We Canadians can only shake our heads when hearing such stories. Any normal person is upset by miscarriages of justice wherever they occur and those of us fortunate to live in a society unburdened with division based on race may attribute those in the US to the black-white divide and pervasive Jim-Crow attitudes. Some of us no doubt feel smug about the Canadian justice system thinking it far superior to that of the US. We recall that our made-in-Canada miscarriages of justice (e.g. Milgard) were eventually 'made right', and that, anyway, Canada doesn't have the death penalty. At least in Canada mistakes lack the dreadful finality of mistakes in jurisdictions permitting capital punishment. 

'We live on a higher moral plane than Americans'

But we shouldn't be too smug. Too many of us pride ourselves as living in a better system and on a higher moral plane than Americans. We snicker at the alleged dumbness of some presidents, and we deplore their ignorance of peoples and cultures outside their borders. How ego boosting it is to watch CBC’s Rick Mercer shoving a mike in some hapless Yank’s face, and asking him or her whether they agree with Canada’s policy of setting criminals adrift on ice flows. We smugly note that the division of powers in the American system often results in a stalemate between the Administration and Congress. What we perhaps don't realize is that their system, which may seem 'not to work', was designed to be that way by the Founding Fathers. In their wisdom they saw that was how they could prevent a despot taking control of the young nation so recently freed from arbitrary British rule. Despite its obvious flaws, the US system is a relatively open one where the nefarious activities of scoundrels in high office will in most cases eventually be found out. We have no comparable institution in Canada to the US independent counsel with the power to investigate alleged misdeeds or wrongdoing of the politically powerful. 

In Canada we have allowed a system to evolve that places a dangerous amount of power in the hands of one man — the Prime Minister. It’s dangerous because until there is a fundamental reform of the political system, this country will continue its slide into a system perilously akin to that of a dictatorship. Canadians may think this can’t happen because, after all, everyone, the PM included, is subject to the rule of law. But this vaunted bedrock of democracy is under siege when the system hands to one person virtually all the levers of power. The PM exercises the power to appoint, without significant oversight (as in the American system), Supreme Court justices, chairs of all parliamentary committees, heads of hundreds of boards and commissions, heads of the military and the RCMP, and a huge phalanx of lesser minions throughout the vast apparatus of government. Canadians should be scared as hell that we have allowed such a state of affairs to develop. To all appearances, and in reality under such a system, the PM is answerable to no one but himself. 

We see this now in Shawinigate. It surely is prima facie to any impartial observer taking the time to follow the complicated twists and turns in the Grand-Mère affaire that there is enough evidence already in the public domain for the justice system to whip itself into concerted action to get to the bottom of it. Surely Canadians have a right to know whether or not their Prime Minister was in a conflict of interest and lied about it, or even worse, was in breach of the criminal code. But nothing seems to be happening. All we have is the government refusing to answer legitimate questions during Question Period. Herb Gray, Brian Tobin and the Prime Minister insult and mock the very institution of Parliament itself with their flippant non-answers to opposition questions about the affair.

Why isn't the 'system' getting to the bottom of it? One can only hope that it isn't because of a 'conflict of interest'. Not the alleged conflict of interest in Shawinigate, but that residing within the system itself. If you owed your position to your boss, would you be interested in taking him to task because he wasn't paying his fair share towards the coffee fund?

Every day we see our government increasingly distancing itself from accountability. We should have no patience with those who argue that Jean Chretien is at least no demagogue and that, at heart, he is a decent man. After all, we Canadians still retain the option of ‘throwing the rascals out’ every four years or so. Yes, we had that option last fall and we all knew or should have known the kind of a government Jean Chretien was running. And what did we do? We elected him with an even greater majority. 

We shouldn't hold our collective breath for the opposition parties to turn things around if through some vast fluke they should ever take power. None of the opposition parties has any discernible platform to truly reform the system into one of accountability and responsibility. And where are the Cassandras? The Press, now the only effective opposition in the country with the Official Opposition moribund, contents itself with getting apoplectic over the sensation du jour. With some exceptions, notably The National Post and The Globe and Mail, members of the fourth estate who should be shaking awake a torpid citizenry to the dangers of concentrating all power in one man, distracts everyone with sideshows. It's far easier to concentrate on made-for-TV events like The Summit of the Americas and getting cheap yucks by counting the arrows in the backside of the politically walking dead such as the unfortunate Mr. Day.

'Trudeau was Machiavellian but no despot'

It’s no solution that we have the option of periodically replacing one set of rascals with another. The Canadian political system, if it’s not reformed, is a sitting duck ready for plucking by a demagogue-in-waiting. Canadian politics is a wonderful training ground for would-be despots, any number of whom are doubtless watching avidly the performance of le p’tit gars from Shawinigan and noting how easy it is to get away with just about anything when you hold in your hands the reins of total power. 

With the ripe-for-plunder political infrastructure that Liberals (and Tories before them) have devised, it would take very little to turn this country into a full-blown, albeit banana-republic dictatorship that could only be overturned by a popular revolt. Let us not forget how Trudeau during the October crisis of 1970 placed the country under martial law on the pretext of an “apprehended insurrection”. Trudeau, though Machiavellian to some, was no despot. But with the system then, as now, and with his cabinet evidently clueless as to what was really going on in Quebec, had he been so inclined, he could well have taken us much farther down the infamous slippery slope.

Notional Pest