OTTAWA – Canada’s Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Friday on the sentencing of a man who was involved in a deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
The decision in the Alexandre Bissonnette case will determine the constitutionality of a key provision regarding parole eligibility for multiple murder convictions.
As a result, it will also reverberate far beyond the court case.
In March 2021, a judge found Alek Minassian guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder, three years after he hit people with a pickup truck on a busy Toronto sidewalk. The judge decided to delay sentencing until after the Supreme Court’s decision.
What is at stake is the tension between society’s denunciation of such horrific crimes and the notion of rehabilitation as a core value in sentencing.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder in the January 2017 mosque robbery that took place just after evening prayers.
In 2019, Bissonnette successfully challenged a 2011 law that allowed a court, in the case of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and periods of disqualification from parole of 25 consecutive years for each murder.
A judge found the provision unconstitutional but saw no need to declare it invalid and instead read new wording that would allow a court to impose consecutive terms of less than 25 years.
Ultimately, the judge ruled that Bissonnette must wait 40 years before applying for parole.
The Quebec Court of Appeal agreed that the sentencing provision violated the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of life, liberty, and security of person, as well as freedom from cruel or unusual punishment.
“Parliament’s response to the problem identified is so extreme that it is disproportionate to any legitimate government interest,” the Court of Appeal said.
“Thus, the judge was correct in concluding that the scope of the provision is clearly broader than necessary to achieve the goals of reporting and protecting the public.”
The Court of Appeal, however, said that the judge was wrong to make the period of ineligibility 40 years.
He declared the sentencing provision constitutionally invalid and said the court must revert to the law as it was before 2011, meaning that parole ineligibility periods must be served simultaneously, resulting in a total waiting period of 25 years in the Bissonnette case.
The Court of Appeal noted that there is no guarantee that the Parole Board will grant Bissonnette parole in 25 years.
“This will depend on the circumstances at the time, including the level of dangerousness of the appellant, his potential for rehabilitation and the way his personality has evolved,” the court said.
“Furthermore, as with any parole, if granted, it will include conditions necessary to adequately ensure the safety of the public, otherwise it will not be granted.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 26, 2022.