In a unanimous decision, the court ruled the 40-year sentence imposed upon Alexandre Bissonnette, the shooter who killed six people in a Quebec City Mosque, was unconstitutional because sentences longer than a person’s natural life amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
The original trial judge imposed that sentence after rejecting a crown request for a 150-year period of parole ineligibility, 25 years for each of the six victims. The trial judge’s 40-year-sentence was reduced by Quebec’s court of appeal to 25 years, before being appealed to the Supreme Court, which kept the 25-year parole eligibility in place.
First degree murder cases in Canada come with an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. On average offenders often serve longer than 25 years, but if a parole board agrees, they can be released after 25 years.
A law passed under the Harper government allowed for those 25-year terms to be applied consecutively in cases of multiple murders. The top court’s ruling strikes that down, putting any sentence over 25 years at jeopardy.
That includes cases like John Paul Ostamas, a Winnipeg man who pled guilty to killing three homeless men in 2015 and was sentenced to 75 years in prison without parole. Justin Bourque, who killed three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 2014 was sentenced to 75 years without parole. Douglas Garland, convicted of killing a Calgary couple and their five-year-old grandson in 2014 also received a 75-year term.
Alek Minassian, who was convicted last year, in the Toronto van attack that killed 10 people is awaiting sentencing because the court wanted to wait for this Supreme Court ruling. But his sentence will now be capped at 25 years without parole.
Liberal Justice Minister David Lametti said his government fought for a judge’s ability to impose longer sentences in cases like this, but will respect the court’s ruling.
“Our position was clear, we supported a sentencing judge’s discretion to impose a longer period of parole ineligibility where appropriate,” he said. “However, we will respect the court’s decision and carefully review its implications and the path forward.”
The court declared that the current sentencing regime for multiple murders is unconstitutional, which doesn’t preclude the government from bringing in a different regime.
Conservative MPs were quick to denounce the decision. The opposition party’s justice critic Rob Moore and a senior Quebec MP Pierre Paul Hus put out a joint statement calling the decision “extremely disappointing.”
“This decision means that mass murders like Alexandre Bissonnette, a man who senselessly murdered six people in their place of worship, may be free to walk the streets. It means that Justin Bourque, a man who senselessly murdered three RCMP officers in Moncton, may be free to walk the streets,” they said. “This is unacceptable. Canada’s worst murderers must remain locked behind bars.
Moore and Paul-Hus said the Liberals should be looking at ways to address the issue.
“Conservatives are calling on the federal government to use whatever means it has available to them to ensure the perpetrators of mass shootings serve sentences that reflect the severity of their crimes.”
Conservative leadership candidates Patrick Brown and Pierre Poilievre said they would invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to preserve the existing regime.
Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper who brought in the change, called for a new law.
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of mass murderer Alexandre Bissonnette devalues the lives of his victims. This is a grave injustice that calls for action from Parliament,” he said on Twitter.
NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice, said the party respects the court’s decision, but believes the government can still find a legal avenue to address the issue.
“The NDP respects the independence of the Court, but as federal legislators we have a responsibility to take action to tackle hate head-on and to do everything in our power to avoid such a senseless tragedy from happening again,” he said.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough, we must act.”