Movement looks to resist law and order legislation that’s set to combat crime and terrorism

A protest held Nov. 24 outside Stephen Harper’s constituency office stood as an indication that Occupy Calgary may be evolving from rallies and tents into a broader political movement.

The protest was sparked by the proposed Safe Streets and Communities Act, which has been put forth by the federal Conservative majority government.

Arran Fisher attended the protest and said: “The Harper government needs some real opposition. If the opposition parties aren’t going to step up, then it’s got to be our job as citizens.”

The Department of Justice website listed many proposed changes, including increased penalties for marijuana production and mandatory minimum sentences for many drug-related offences.

“This bill is closing the gap between the person who’s having a marijuana cigarette on the street corner and the rapist [or] child molester out there who is entering the system,” said Jan Bacon, who has been involved with Occupy Calgary since it began on Oct. 15, and who helped organize the Nov. 24 protest.

Along with many other provisions, the bill would also replace government pardons with “record suspensions.”

The government rationale for eliminating pardons, as published on the Department of Justice website, said: “The government [will] not excuse someone who has committed an offence, nor [will] it forgive them, as the state lacks the moral authority to do these things; such forgiveness can only be expressed by the victim.”

Protesters outside Stephen Harper’s constituency office on Nov. 24 denounced the criminalization of marijuana use and expected construction of new jails, both of which are part of the proposed Safe Streets and Communities Act.
Photo by: Melissa Molloy
However, opponents of the bill argue that punitive drug laws and increased prison populations may only lead to more victims of crime.

“People who go to jail often come out worse than before they went in by adopting the culture of criminality that exists in prison,” said Fisher.

“This bill could turn people who have made a mistake into lifelong criminals.”

Andrew Robinson also attended the protest said: “It’s harsh. It’s way too harsh. It’s American-style; even Texans have warned against it.”

Robinson also criticized the bill’s focus on mandatory minimum sentences, which would limit judges’ abilities to exercise their discretion with sentencing.

“We’re going to have a lot more wrongful convictions, people like David Milgaard,” he said, referring to that Winnipeg man’s wrongful rape and murder charge in 1970.

While protesters said the moral cost of the bill would be steep, they also pointed to the projected financial cost. Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page recently told CBC it could cost more than $3 billion, while Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier told Parliament that he expects the extra costs for prosecution and incarceration of criminals to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There are so many facets to this bill that seem wrong,” Fisher said. “A large part of it is the cost: billions of dollars to build prisons that few people think we need at all.”

Bacon expressed similar concerns: “This bill is going to cost the taxpayer a lot more money. Why can’t we funnel that money into rehabilitation and prevention? What we need to spend more money on are social workers, not jail guards.”

With a Conservative majority government in place, it seems unlikely that the Occupy movement and its petitions will be successful in derailing the bill. Nevertheless, Bacon brands Occupy Calgary a success.

“Occupy Calgary has gotten people talking and is successful in that sense,” she said, and pointed out that the first step to any meaningful political action begins with conversation about policy, such as the omnibus crime bill.

“Just the other day I was giving blood, and I had three of the nurses surrounding me and we were all talking about it. Those conversations are there because Occupy Calgary put those tents up.

“I think we are at a place now where the conversation will keep going, with or without the tents,” she added.

gpicketts@cjournal.ca