This week's issue of the Gauntlet covers two stories pertaining to the issue of mental health. If there's a lesson to learn from these stories and the multitude of others like them, it is that our mental health is far more fragile and complicated than we let on, that each and every one of us can face psychological difficulties and that empathy is a powerful tool for understanding and healing.
With this in mind, it is incredibly alarming to discover that our present Conservative government hopes to exponentially expand and 'Americanize' the criminal justice system of Canada, costing taxpayers, according to one estimate, an extra three billion dollars over the next five years and further victimizing peoples of low income status, aboriginals, minorities, previous offenders, those with learning disabilities, drug abusers and -- of course -- those with mental health issues.
The Conservatives, knowing full well that Canada's crime rate has significantly dropped over the past 20 years, have brought forth Bill C-10, dubbed the "Safe Streets and Communities Act," as a bloated bureaucratic fear-for-all. Minister of Justice and professional windbag Rob Nicholson tabled the bill on September 20, following the Harper campaign promise to pass "tough-on-crime" legislation within 100 days of the 41st parliament's seating on June 6. C-10 passed its first reading in parliament on September 27. Believing that they speak for the majority of Canadians, whereas the election showed they do not even speak for half of us (only 40.3 per cent of Canadians voted Conservative in the previous federal election), the Conservative government has gathered up nine smaller crime bills that previously failed in the House during the Conservative minority. Now, having confused the term 'majority government' with the phrase 'moral high-ground,' the Conservatives have combined the nine bills into the 'omnibus' of legislation that is Bill C-10. Socially detrimental, absurdly expensive and upsettingly reactionary and draconian in its nature, Bill C-10 ought to cause a great deal of worry in the hearts of any Canadian.
Additionally, there is the irony of a supposedly anti-bureaucratic and fiscally conservative government introducing mammothly expensive, Kafkaesque crime legislation. The only justification so far given for this absurdity came from Nicholson in an interview with the CBC's Evan Solomon, wherein Nicholson touted a handful of empty one-liners like "crime is very costly to Canadians," that we need "better protection" and must "move forward." Nicholson's party-line rhetoric offered nothing to the thousands upon thousands of ulterior Canadians that will possibly soon serve harsher and longer jail sentences rather than receiving adequate support or rehabilitation.
The Harper approach to crime, dubbed "vengeance culture" by Canadian Dimension writers James Patterson and Ashley Titterton, is highly reminiscent of the backwards, bloated and broken penal system south of the border in the United States. Statistics from 2006 suggest that some 56.2 per cent of American inmates (1.25 million people) have mental health issues, causing Jamie Fellner, Director of the u.s. Program of Human Rights Watch, to remark that "prisons are woefully ill-equipped for their current role as the nation's primary mental health facilities." Here in Canada they estimate that 35 per cent of inmates in federal penitentiaries have mental health issues. Those with mental health issues are extremely over-represented in the prison population, a number bound only to increase if the Conservative's "tough-on-crime" attack plan is allowed to continue. Coupling the facts on mental health with the disturbing legacy of racism that surrounds our justice system (current estimates suggest that 70 per cent of Canadian inmates are aboriginal) presents a harsh picture where the Conservatives appear to be recasting the horrifying classic binary of the "Us versus Them" paradigm.
The Conservative "vengeance culture," hiding behind the sick facade of 'responsible' justice and using fear as a weapon, do not have the best interests of Canadians at heart. Ignoring reasonable discourse and serious statistics that show that restorative justice, as opposed to Conservative-brand punitive/retributive justice is far more effective at reducing incarceration and its negative cycle, the Conservative government have blatantly and disturbingly declared that Canadians of low income status, aboriginals, minorities, previous offenders, those with learning disabilities, drug abusers and those with mental health issues are all a threat to society, rather than fellow citizens who are in need of understanding and support.