Minister argues for bill to do away with pardons

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says proposed legislation will ensure pardons are granted only to those who earn them.

OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says proposed legislation will ensure pardons are granted only to those who earn them.

A Commons committee is studying a bill that would do away with the term pardon by amending the Criminal Records Act to substitute the phrase “record suspension.”

Toews told the public safety committee Wednesday the new name is a more accurate description of a measure that currently suggests the offender is being forgiven.

The minister said forgiveness can come from a victim, “but that’s not the role of the government.”

The legislation would extend the waiting period to apply for a record suspension to five years from three for lesser offences, and to 10 years from five for more serious crimes. It would also bar most people convicted of sexual offences against minors and those guilty of more than three serious offences from receiving a record suspension.

A pardon does not erase a person’s criminal record, but it means the information is kept in a separate file and doesn’t show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre. The key law-enforcement database, known as CPIC, is used by the RCMP and other police forces.

A pardon can make it easier for a convict to get a job or travel abroad, and the number of applications has surged in recent years.

Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland expressed concern the proposed tougher standards might prevent people who need a fresh start from getting that clean slate.

Toews said the legislation strikes a fair balance on an issue that clearly “touches a nerve” with Canadians.

Pressed as to how the government arrived at the revised waiting periods of five and 10 years, Toews characterized the decision as a judgment call. “I don’t have any empirical evidence before me that I can cite.”

The Canadian Press revealed last April that former hockey coach Graham James was pardoned in 2007 for sex crimes.

The news helped prompt the passage of initial changes, including increased waiting times for certain offences and more discretion to decide whether someone should receive a pardon.

James, 58, is in custody facing nine new sex-related charges involving three individuals.

Currently when a person convicted of serious sex offences receives a pardon, the criminal record is kept apart from others but the offender’s name is flagged in the CPIC system.

Pardon requests received by the Parole Board of Canada rose to more than 36,000 in 2008-09 from an historical average of about 20,000 a year.