Proposed pardon reforms worry ex-offenders

Neal Cornish, a Winnipeg nursing student and part-time musician, worries that proposed reforms to pardon laws introduced by the Conservative government in May will keep him from receiving a pardon for another two years. And that, he's afraid, would subject him to job discrimination when he graduates and begins looking for work.

Neal Cornish had it all planned.

He would finish his bachelor of nursing degree and hit the job market next spring — around the time he was eligible to apply for a pardon for two minor criminal convictions.

But the 34-year-old Winnipeg man is angry that changes to the pardon system announced by the Conservative government last week may force him to wait another two years.

“It puts me at a marked disadvantage,” Cornish said.

Without a pardon to wipe the slate clean, his two convictions are bound to come up in job interviews, and could affect his prospects, he said.

In the late 1990s, Cornish was convicted of possessing stolen jewellery and a stolen car licence plate.

He finished paying off his court-ordered restitution two years ago, and it was only then that the clock started ticking on the three years he must wait before he is eligible to apply for a pardon.

But under a bill tabled by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, he would have to wait five years, not three.

“The Canadian government had given me the means to rejoin society if I did the work, which I have done. So why now are you saying, ‘Okay, you did the work but we got to punish you a little bit more?’ ”

The reforms were quickly drafted by the Conservative government, reacting to the news that former hockey coach Graham James was pardoned three years ago for his sex abuse convictions.  The changes would permanently bar anyone convicted of a sexual crime against a minor, or with more than three serious “indictable” offences, from applying.  All other offenders seeking a pardon, to be renamed a “record suspension,” would have to wait 10 years before applying for indictable offences, up from five.

Those with the less serious “summary convictions,” like Cornish, would have to wait for five years to apply, up from three.  Although Cornish thinks that by tapping into the contacts he has cultivated he will still get a job, others with criminal records may not be so fortunate.  “There’s nothing of consequence that anybody can do that they don’t ask you that question: Do you have a criminal record?” Cornish said. “Once you say ‘yes’ that puts you in line for discrimination.”

All pardon applications made before the changes come into force will be dealt with under the old, more lenient rules, the government announced.

That has heightened interest in pardons.  Andrew Tanenbaum, program director at Pardons Canada, a non-profit agency that helps people obtain pardons, said their phones are “considerably busier.”  The proposed legislation could take some time, he said, “So I don’t think people should start panicking that they’re not going to get their pardon at this point.”

James Balkwill, 50, who was convicted in 1999 of assaulting and sexually assaulting his then-wife, has been trying to overturn his convictions ever since. As a result, the Leamington man avoided applying for a pardon, thinking that would be tantamount to admitting guilt.

But because of the proposed changes, he intends to apply for a pardon before he is caught by the new timelines. “At least in some small way, it may make my life better,” he said.  Balkwill, who survives by doing odd jobs, said he has been turned down for employment because of his convictions. “People don’t understand how limiting it is.”

Michael Carabash, a Toronto lawyer who has written a book on criminal records, takes issue with the government making people wait longer, which he thinks could do more harm than good.  “I don’t know if government has any particular reason on why they want to make people wait longer, other than making the government look tough on crime.”  Not having a pardon means that people with convictions remain exposed to discrimination after they’ve done their sentence, he said.

This is strictly prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says that once you’ve been convicted and punished for a crime, you’re not to be tried or punished for it again, he said.

Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, calls the changes typical of the Conservative government’s “opportunistic” justice reforms. “They are characterized by a kind of reactive emotionalism driven by populist sensationalism. This is tinkering gone crazy.”

Defence lawyer Emma Rhodes said targeting murderers and sex offenders could have been reached by tweaking the current laws.

“It’s hitting a fly with a sledgehammer,” she said.

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