Public Safety Minister Vic Toews unveiled sweeping changes Tuesday that he said are meant to tighten up Canada's system of criminal pardons.

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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews talks about a bill to do away with pardons Tuesday at an announcement attended by Christine Carretta, whose sister was murdered, and Sheldon Kennedy, who was sexually abused as a young hockey player and who learned recently that his abuser was pardoned. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Toews said the proposed changes would eliminate pardons and replace them with more narrowly defined criminal record suspensions.

The push for changes to the pardon system stemmed from the case of Graham James, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to sexual assault. Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the NHL, and a second unnamed player had come forward with accounts of the sexual abuse they suffered when James coached their Western Hockey League teams from 1984 to 1995.

"As all of you are aware, the pardon of convicted sex offender Graham James was deeply offensive to Canadians, to victims and to our government," Toews said during a news conference in Ottawa. "It demonstrated the need to take action to prevent such an outrage from happening again and to ensure our system of justice is not brought into disrepute."

Toews said his reform legislation would make it impossible for those convicted of sex offences against minors to have their criminal records suspended, except in a case where the applicant can demonstrate he or she was "close in age," and that the offence did not involve a position of trust or authority, bodily harm or threat of violence or intimidation.

The changes would also prevent those convicted of more than three indictable offences from getting a record suspension.

Toews said the period of ineligibility for a record suspension would increase, from the current three years to five years for summary conviction offences and from five years up to 10 years for indictable offences.

'It doesn't erase what they've done'

The National Parole Board granted James a pardon in 2007 after he completed a 3½-year prison sentence. But the news only came to light in April  after a previously unknown accuser contacted Winnipeg police.

The National Parole Board said in an explanation issued April 5 that it could not refuse a pardon based on the nature of a crime.

Craig Jones, the executive director of the John Howard Society, said the legislation to revamp the pardon system was a "rush to judgment."

He said there may be a case for a review of pardons and parole, but it should by done slowly and carefully, by panels of experts — not by what he calls "short-term-oriented, hair-on-fire opportunists."

Kennedy, however, in attendance at the announcement, applauded the proposed changes.

"This has been put together, yes, quickly, but with a lot of thought, and I think that it's going to be very beneficial to the organizations and the people that are going to be looking for background checks and so forth moving forward," he said.

"I think it just holds people accountable for what they've done and it doesn't erase what they've done."

In January of this year, Theoren Fleury, Kennedy's former WHL teammate who went on to have a stellar NHL career with the Calgary Flames and other teams, filed a police complaint against James.

Fleury alleged in his autobiography, Playing With Fire, that James repeatedly sexually abused him when he was a young player in the 1980s.

Winnipeg police have said they were investigating Fleury's complaint.

With files from The Canadian Press