Former NHLer Kennedy supports Tory crime bill

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy told MPs on a committee Wednesday that he's in favour of the government's omnibus crime bill because it cracks down on child sex offenders.
Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy appeared at a parliamentary committee last year and was on Parliament Hill again Thursday testifying in support of the government's omnibus crime bill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada needs tougher sentences for child sex offenders and better protection for victims, former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy said Wednesday when he spoke in support of the government's controversial omnibus crime bill.

Kennedy, who was sexually abused by his coach as a teenager, told MPs on the House of Commons justice and human rights committee that convicted offenders don't spend enough time behind bars and that there should be mandatory minimum sentences for those who commit sexual crimes against youth under 16.

"I believe that we need to toughen sentencing for child sex offences, they just don’t seem in line with the damage they leave in their wake. Not even close," Kennedy said.

His abuser, Graham James, was sentenced to 3½ years in jail and served 18 months. James then received a pardon from the National Parole Board.

"Pardons should be eliminated for all child sex offenders. Period," Kennedy told the committee. The former hockey player has appeared at the committee before to testify on previous crime legislation about pardons and he spoke in support of the actions being taken by the government.

The Conservatives' current omnibus crime bill combines nine bills that were introduced in previous sessions of Parliament but weren't passed before the spring election. Some of the measures in the proposed legislation include eliminating conditional sentences for certain offences, increasing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, introducing minimum sentences for a new set of crimes, changing the rules for granting pardons and for parole, and changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act has attracted controversy from many circles with some critics saying it will increase the prison population, which comes with high costs, and that the offenders will come out of jail worse than when they went in and put society at greater risk. There are concerns about the mandatory minimum sentence proposals and other elements in the comprehensive bill and the impact they will have on the court and prison systems, which some say are already overburdened.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, told MPs Wednesday that the Safe Streets Act will not accomplish the goal of protecting Canadians' health and safety.

"We feel this legislation will have no impact on community safety. In fact, it is more likely to create a decrease in community safety," he said. More people will be in jail, and for longer periods of time, and will return to the community with skills and networks acquired in jail, he said.

Jamie Chaffe, president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, told the committee that the country's criminal justice system is currently overburdened and prosecutors often have to withdraw charges, offer plea bargains or take other measures to ease caseloads for courts.

He warned that the proposed legislation will likely mean an increased caseload because of more trials and that more money is going to be needed to support that work.

"In the absence of significant, tangible new resources to support this new workload, these changes will exacerbate what is already a dangerous situation of work overload," he said.

But supporters of the bill, including Kennedy and other victim advocates, say it will help protect victims and properly crack down on offenders.

Representatives of police agencies also testified Wednesday and said they believe it provides appropriate consequences for those who commit serious crimes.

"Canadians need to have their confidence in the criminal justice system restored, perhaps reinvigorated," said Dale McFee, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

Kennedy said that children are encouraged to come forward if they are being abused and if they have the courage to tell someone, they need to know that "justice will be served.

"To me the fundamental reason for change to these laws is simple: we can’t let these perpetrators walk freely among our youth organizations, our schools, our neighbourhoods, and our workplaces. Children need to feel safe and parents have to trust that the government is playing a role in protecting them," he said.

"Criminals need to be held accountable and be dealt with consistently with clearly defined consequences. In my mind, child protection is paramount," he said.

The Conservative government has promised to pass the Safe Streets Act within 100 sitting days of Parliament and is using its majority to move it through the legislative process quickly. Critics say the bill represents a major shift in Canada's criminal justice system and needs thorough examination but the government says many of its measures have already been studied when the individual bills were previously before Parliament.