La Loche school shooter won't serve decades in prison under Canada's new law if sentenced as adult

While federal legislation allows a judge to order an adult killer who murders multiple victims to serve 25 years per victim before being eligible to seek parole, the Department of Justice says that would not apply to a youth mass killer who receives an adult sentence.

Federal Justice says youth cannot be given consecutive periods of parole ineligibility

Police investigate the scene of a January 2016 shooting at a school in La Loche, Sask. The shooting left four people dead. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

In the past year, two adult killers who murdered multiple victims in Canada have been sentenced to 75 years in prison without parole. But don't expect the teenage shooter who murdered four people and attempted to kill seven others in La Loche, Sask., to receive more than 10 years — even if he's sentenced as an adult.

The federal Department of Justice says Canada's new law, which allows a judge to impose consecutive life sentences with parole ineligibility of 25 years per victim, doesn't apply to youth sentenced as adults.

On Friday, the Crown will make its final argument to Judge Janet McIvor as to why the school shooter in La Loche should be sentenced as an adult, rather than a youth, as maintained by defence.

The shooter was just weeks away from his 18th birthday, when on Jan. 22, 2016 he shot two brothers in a house in La Loche, Sask., and then opened fire inside the high school, killing two teachers and wounding seven other people.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder.

The new provision in the Criminal Code has been applied six times to adult killers since it was passed by Parliament in 2011. Most recently, Alberta's triple murderer Derek Saretzky was sentenced to 75 years without parole for butchering a father, daughter and a senior.  

"It's different," the teen shooter's defence lawyer, Aaron Fox, said. "Even if he's being sentenced as an adult, he's still subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act."

Defence lawyer Aaron Fox says his teenage client would be eligible for parole after 10 years if he's given an adult life sentence. (CBC)

A federal Justice spokesperson explained that the Criminal Code provision on this matter (745.51) stipulates that it applies to a sentence under 745, a provision for adult offenders, and not to 745.1, a provision for a person under 18 receiving adult sentences.

Fox said if his client is sentenced as an adult, he would be eligible for parole 10 years after he was first taken into custody. He'd be 27 years old.

A youth sentence could work out to roughly the same amount of time in custody — six years calculated from time of sentencing — but the facility wouldn't be a federal penitentiary. 

Abolishing 'sentence discounts' for multiple murders

In 2011, the Harper government's tough-on-crime law "Protecting Canadians by Ending Multiple Murders Act" was enacted. It was intended to stop the so-called "sentence discount" that killers received when they were allowed to serve their period of parole ineligibility concurrently.

Critics of the new law say it's a backdoor way to impose a life sentence without parole.

"It's basically a lock 'em up, throw away the key sentence," said David Milward, professor of law at the University of Manitoba.

That's like closing the door on this person's life.- Allan Manson, Queen's University

When Ottawa debated the new law, proponents argued that it was intended for the most sadistic killers.

"I think it's highly questionable whether there was ever any intention for that new provision to be applied to a young person," said Allan Manson, law professor at Queen's University.

He argues that even if a judge found consecutive periods of parole ineligibility could be legally applied to a young offender sentenced as an adult, most judges would conclude that it violates the spirit of the youth criminal justice system.

"You would be talking about 34 years you are going to place [the La Loche school shooter] in a severe custody regime ... that's like closing the door on this person's life, which is antithetical to all the principles that underly the YCJA," Manson said.

Four people were killed by a teenaged shooter on Jan. 22, 2016 in La Loche: Clockwise from top left, Marie Janvier, 21; Adam Wood, 35; Drayden Fontaine, 13; and Dayne Fontaine, 17. (Submitted to CBC/Facebook)

Sentencing arguments

The onus is on the Crown to convince the judge that an adult sentence is necessary; however, there's a legal presumption that a youth has a diminished level of moral blameworthiness, and that sentencing should focus on rehabilitation and reintegration.

Defence lawyer Aaron Fox has presented evidence about the Indigenous teen's troubled childhood and cognitive deficits due to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

On Friday, the Crown will cross-examine two expert witnesses who diagnosed the teen with FASD, before beginning sentencing arguments.

6 cases of adult multiple murderers sentenced to more than 25 years

  1. Derek Saretzky was sentenced in August 2017 to life in prison in with no change of parole for 75 years for killing a toddler, her father, and a senior citizen in 2015.
  2. Douglas Garland was given three life sentences in February 2017 with no chance of parole for 75 years for three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Calgary couple Alvin and Kathy Liknes and their five-year old grandson, Nathan O'Brien. 
  3. John Paul Ostamas was given three life sentences with no chance of parole for 75 years for three counts of second-degree murder for the 2015 killing of three homeless men on the streets of Winnipeg.
  4. Christopher Husbands was sentenced to life in prison in April 2015 with no parole for 30 years for shooting two men in a Toronto food court. His conviction was recently overturned and a judge ordered a new trial.
  5. Justin Bourque was given a 75-year prison sentence in October 2014 for the first-degree murder of three RCMP officers, and the attempted murder of two others in Moncton. 
  6. Travis Baumgartner became the first Canadian to receive consecutive life sentences in September 2013. He was given life in prison with no chance at parole for 40 years for killing three of his colleagues and injuring another in a robbery in Edmonton. He was convicted on one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a Master's in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC