True North strong and free, flaws and all

Appeared in the North Shore News – June 30, 2016

Canada – we’re No. 1! In telecom charges! In bloated credit card interest! In stockbrokerages’ fat fees! In being passed over for NHL franchises by that little New York fink Gary Bettman!

Outstanding Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies mused that one is allowed to believe something that one doesn’t believe 24 hours a day.

So today I scorn the usual nauseous self-congratulation that sticks to the national holiday. Twenty-three hours from now I may believe that Canada is indeed the greatest, but at this hour I’m willing to believe that the title of “the greatest” lies safely in the bosom of Muhammad Ali.

Or, as I mutter in jaded moments: If it’s the greatest country, think of the rest.

How about crime and punishment? Our criminal justice system strikes terror in the hearts of the law-abiding.

Put aside that the court wheels habitually grind slower than a con artist repays his victims (if ever, and so much for restitution, which ought to be the heart of all punishment). It defines official insanity, or at least confusion: The prison doors swing open to release a times-up menace into a community, accompanied by media warnings that this dangerous creep, name provided, is on the loose.

That traduces plain sense and the safety of the innocent. And, paradox here, simultaneously the noble (or naïve, the two often cohabiting) principle that the convict has paid his debt to society. New start. Clean sheet. But if blotted again – more employment for the system.

It must agonizingly trouble judges who release children into the custody of a parent – often, in this country, on preferential racial grounds, and on another angry day I’ll lecture on the state-sponsored racism that distorts the Canadian polity – only to have the child physically or sexual abused, or starved, or killed. But judges, counsellors, parole boards are spared personal legal responsibility. To err is human, to forgive is unnecessary.

And here’s my if-I-were-king moment: I’d restore capital punishment.

Horrors, barbaric! But not of the usual suspects, like low-IQ persons committing boringly unimaginative murders. No, for the seven-piece-suit psychopaths who repeatedly rip off the vulnerable with Ponzi schemes, Internet scams (how mixed a blessing are the Internet and “social media”!), and – wait for it – big-time offshore tax evaders sucking wealth from honest people and their fairly honest governments. Like the scoundrel who, as a judge ruled in a recent typical case, essentially was arguing that he ought not pay taxes in his own country, ought not pay them in the haven abroad – ought not pay taxes at all.

Very well, here’s my squishy liberal alternative to a good hanging: A free pass from the gibbet for a first offence. Second offence: Life-means-life imprisonment.

It’s scandalous that our courts are light on so-called white-collar crime. With the usual one-third sentence reduction for convicts who don’t belch too loudly and clean their teeth twice a day, these smooth thugs can be philosophical about being caught stealing millions from widows and orphans – three or four years in the crowbar motel is a small price to pay when their ill-gotten gains are squirreled away in offshore holes the police couldn’t find, even if asked.

That’s why life imprisonment would teach a profound lesson; as Voltaire drily said in his mid-18th century visit to England, the English execute an admiral from time to time “pour encourager les autres” –  to encourage the others. Ah, but of course the Supremes would rule a life sentence was charter-offending cruel and unusual punishment.

Which can only raise highly unfashionable questions about both the charter’s connection with reality, and whether the “ordinary Canadian” believes that, given prison amenities, libraries, balanced diet, health care, exercise, and protection from unwelcome gang vengeance, to say nothing of the flattering attentions of psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, and academics studying the system, there is, in Canada in this year of blessed enlightenment 2016, any genuine punishment at all.

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And if you hear noble orations today on how, notwithstanding its imperfections (all to be extinguished by our present prime minister, followed by a victory walk on the Gatineau River), Canadians live in not only a beautiful, progressive, socially enlightened country, but a prosperous one, note this:

An Ipsos Reid survey in January suggested that nearly half of those surveyed are within $200 a month of being unable to pay their bills and to defray their debt. About a quarter were already unable to meet their bills and debt payments.

O Canada! The Canada we the privileged hear little about.

© Trevor Lautens, 2016