OTTAWA – Ottawa wants to make it free and fast for Canadians to obtain criminal pardons for simple pot possession, but Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale made it clear Wednesday the government does not support the push for conviction records to be destroyed outright.
Goodale said legislation is coming this fall to waive the fee and waiting period for Canadians seeking a pardon for possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana – an offence punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Kevin Campbell of Bonnyville, Alta., said Wednesday he hopes this will amount to a clean state, noting his only record blemish is a small pot possession charge from his younger years.
“It’s kind of haunted me,” he said while lining up to be among the first to legally buy cannabis in Edmonton. “I was waiting for the pardon because it costs about $700 to $1,200 to get a lawyer. Now it’s free.”
But Goodale explained Wednesday the government won’t wipe convictions off the books completely even now that recreational cannabis use is legal.
“We have utilized the tool of expungement in cases where there is a profound historical injustice that needed to be corrected,” Goodale told a news conference.
The federal government recently brought forward legislation to allow people to apply to have criminal convictions for consensual sexual activity between same-sex partners erased from the public record. The measure was part of a broader apology to the LGBTQ community.
Cannabis laws, while outdated, were not “of the same nature,” Goodale said.
The government recognizes that while a pardon doesn’t erase a record, having one can make it easier to get a job, travel and generally contribute to society.
A pardon, or record suspension, means the criminal record in question is kept strictly separate from other records and that it may be disclosed only in certain circumstances.
Expungement entails government acknowledgment that those convicted were subject to a historical injustice and their offence was an act that should have never been a crime or, if it occurred today, would likely be inconsistent with the charter.
Currently, individuals are eligible to apply to the Parole Board of Canada for a record suspension for simple pot possession five years after completion of their sentence.
But the waiting period and the $631 cost of applying for a suspension have proven difficult for some people saddled with records.
Under the new plan, people could apply immediately if they have completed their sentence, Goodale said Wednesday, noting legislation will be required to implement the new measures.
“Now that the laws on cannabis have changed, individuals who previously acquired criminal records for simple possession of cannabis should be allowed to shed the stigma and the burden of that record,” he said.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin tabled a private member’s bill earlier this month calling for the government to expunge records for possession of cannabis for recreational use.
Rankin said Wednesday he is pleased the Liberals accepted the thrust of his idea but is “very disappointed” that Goodale ruled out expungement of cannabis convictions.
“He claims there is no historical injustice,” Rankin said in a statement.
“I completely disagree. The disproportionate impacts felt by Indigenous people and racialized communities represent a deep historical injustice and one that should be addressed immediately.”
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto professor and the director of research for a campaign called Cannabis Amnesty, agrees pardons do not go far enough.
Black, Indigenous and marginalized Canadians are disproportionately burdened by criminal records for cannabis possession, he said, adding an individual’s record could in fact be reinstated if it is only suspended rather than expunged.
“I believe others believe that there is an inherent injustice there and that inherent historical injustice should be addressed by the government,” Owusu-Bempah said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted to smoking cannabis as an MP, he said, adding the prime minister has not had to deal with the consequences of criminal record while many Canadians have.
“Let’s recognize the harm that’s been done … to a large number of people in our society,” Owusu-Bempah said.
Looking forward, Trudeau said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to consume cannabis.
“I’ve said many times that I’m not a drug user,” he said. “I don’t drink much alcohol, I don’t drink coffee. I have no intention of using marijuana.”
The Conservatives did not put a question to Trudeau on cannabis during Wednesday’s question period but health critic Marilyn Gladu said earlier her party will examine what is proposed by the Liberal government on record suspensions once the legislation is tabled.
– with files from Chris Purdy
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