Toronto shooting deja vu for tough-on-crime Tories

The shooting that left a man dead and six other people wounded at Toronto's Eaton Centre comes years after the Conservatives passed legislation to lengthen mandatory sentences for crimes committed with a hand gun.
People stand outside the Toronto Eaton Centre in the aftermath of a shooting that left a man dead and six other people wounded on June 2, 2012.

A tragic public shooting on the streets of downtown Toronto six and half years ago helped propel Stephen Harper's Conservatives to power on a law-and-order ticket.

A similar, deadly shooting spree over the weekend at Toronto's crowded Eaton Centre has a Conservative cabinet minister touting the "absolutely critical" sentencing reforms his government has enacted, even as experts say the murder illustrates just how useless so-called "tough on crime" policies are at preventing crime.

One likened the policies to selling "snake oil."

The only point of agreement seems to be that the government's tough-on-crime message still hasn't seeped through to the criminal mind.

Where supporters and critics diverge is on whether it ever will.

"The political rhetoric doesn't make sense," says Anthony Hutchinson, a social worker at evangelical Tyndale University College in Toronto who works with gangs and is himself a former gang member of mixed black and south Asian descent.

"Basically an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."

Back on Jan. 2, 2006, Harper used the Boxing Day shooting of 15-year-old Yonge Street bystander Jane Creba to press home his Conservative party's agenda.

"A Conservative government will crack down on crime," Harper said during a campaign stop in Toronto. "We will act quickly, we will act comprehensively and we will act decisively to fix our criminal justice system."

He was as good as his word.

Among the very first pieces of legislation the Conservatives passed after winning the Jan. 23, 2006 election was a bill lengthening mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with a hand gun. It was the first of many such measures, culminating in March with an omnibus crime bill — optimistically entitled the Safe Streets and Communities Act — that included nine different pieces of legislation.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson touted Bill C-10 as honouring "a commitment to better protect Canadians."

But all those laws did not keep the streets safe Saturday when a gunman opened fire in the food court at the downtown Toronto Eaton Centre, killing one and injuring seven, including a 13-year-old shot in the head.

"Some of these people obviously need to be taught a lesson," Julian Fantino, the former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner who now sits in the Harper cabinet, told the Globe and Mail on Monday.

"We haven't been able to effectively get their attention. That's why some of some of these sentences, severe sentences and mandatory sentences, are absolutely critical."

Are tougher laws working?

That the lesson — do the crime, do the time — apparently hasn't sunk in after more than six years of Conservative rule could be construed as an admission of failure.   

Nicholson declined an interview request Monday but his office, in an email, listed various gun crime provisions it has enacted and stated "our government has a solid track record when it comes to cracking down on gun crime."

John Sawdon, the head of Canadian Training Institute in Toronto, said two gang-exit programs died in February when federal funding dried up.

"Dollars continue to go into policing and suppression efforts but less and less funds go into prevention, intervention activities," said Sawdon, whose national voluntary organization provides training and support services for social and criminal justice workers.

"In the city of Toronto and other places across Canada, traditional gang exit programs have been cut. So they aren't existing any longer," said Sawdon.

However, Julie Di Mambro, a spokesperson for Nicholson, pointed out that at the end of February, the government committed $7.5 million to the "next phase" of its youth gang prevention program. Applications were due in April.

Hutchinson says most crime prevention programs fail — principally because governments only provide short-term funding — and politicians then fall back on the old standards: more prisons, more cops on the street.

"That's the short-term, public-perception fix."

Indeed, NDP Justice critic Francoise Boivin said Monday the Conservatives should be providing more police, not more laws.

But interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the government needs to focus on prevention and work with the provinces, "rather than waiting for the crimes to occur and then getting up on our high horses and saying, 'Isn't it a terrible thing?"'

The complexity of dealing with crime involves everything from social and economic opportunity to family structure, public health care and early childhood education.

"All these sorts of things are hard work," said Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto. "They're a lot harder for a government than it is to change the Criminal Code."

Harsh sentences and mandatory minimums have been proven failures as crime-fighting public policy for decades, said Doob, but politicians can't resist them.

"The guy who sells snake oil to cure serious diseases is always popular because that person has a solution where nobody else has solutions," he said.

"The short-term, quick fixes are very attractive for politicians."