OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a Criminal Code provision that meant multiple murderers might have to wait 50 years or more to apply for parole, calling it degrading and incompatible with human dignity.
The unanimous high court decision came Friday in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, allowing him to seek parole after serving 25 years behind bars for fatally shooting six people at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.
The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a 2011 provision that allowed a judge, in the event of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and parole ineligibility periods of 25 years to be served consecutively for each murder.
The court said the provision violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee against cruel and unusual treatment because it can deny offenders a realistic possibility of being granted parole before they die.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six charges of first-degree murder in the January 2017 assault that took place just after evening prayers.
A judge found the parole ineligibility provision unconstitutional but did not declare it invalid, ultimately ruling Bissonnette must wait 40 years before applying for parole.
Quebec's Court of Appeal subsequently ruled the provision invalid on constitutional grounds and said the judge erred in making the ineligibility period 40 years. It said the court must revert to the law as it stood before 2011, meaning the parole ineligibility periods are to be served concurrently, resulting in a total waiting period of 25 years in Bissonnette's case.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said that in order to ensure respect for the inherent dignity of every individual, the Charter requires Parliament to leave a door open for rehabilitation, even in cases where this objective is of secondary importance.
In practical terms, this means that every prisoner must have a realistic possibility of applying for parole, at the very least earlier than the expiration of an ineligibility period of 50 years, Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote on behalf of the high court.
"The impugned provision, taken to its extreme, authorizes a court to order an offender to serve an ineligibility period that exceeds the life expectancy of any human being, a sentence so absurd that it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute."
By depriving offenders in advance of any possibility of reintegration into society, the provision "shakes the very foundations of Canadian criminal law," Wagner wrote.
Everyone would agree that multiple murders are inherently despicable acts and the most serious of crimes, with consequences that last forever, he added. "This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits on the state’s power to punish offenders, which, in a society founded on the rule of law, must be exercised in a manner consistent with the Constitution."
Officials at the Quebec City mosque said they were disappointed by the ruling, noting a concern among families that the orphaned children of the six men who died in the attack could possibly come across their fathers' killer in the street one day.
An official at Quebec’s director of criminal prosecutions declined to comment on the decision, but reminded reporters Bissonnette has received a life sentence and it will be up to the parole board to decide whether he is released.
The decision will reverberate far beyond Bissonnette's case.
The top court has declared the Criminal Code provision invalid immediately, retroactive to 2011 when it was enacted.
As a result, the Supreme Court says, any offender who has been ordered through the unconstitutional provision to serve a parole ineligibility period of 50 years or more for multiple murders — whether the murders are first degree, second degree or a combination of the two — must be able to apply to the courts for a remedy.
In addition, the Supreme Court added, nothing prevents offenders who were given consecutive ineligibility periods totalling less than 50 years under the provision "from alleging a continuing infringement of their constitutional right, provided that the infringement is proved in each case."
The decision will likely have ramifications for Justin Bourque, who was sentenced to 75 years in prison with no chance of parole in October 2014 in the killing of three RCMP officers and the wounding of two others in Moncton, N.B., in June of that year.
The sentence was the harshest in Canada since the last executions in 1962.
Bourque’s lawyer David Lutz said he was unsure how the top court's decision would be put into effect.
“This is something that needs to be looked at carefully as to how to implement what the Supreme Court of Canada says,” Lutz said in an interview Friday.
The Ontario judge in the high-profile case of Alek Minassian decided to delay sentencing until the Supreme Court provided clarity on the provision.
In March 2021, Minassian was found guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder, three years after he smashed into people with a van on a busy Toronto sidewalk.
Cathy Riddell, one of 26 victims of the attack, was livid Friday.
"I'll tell you what cruel and unusual punishment is," she said. "It's an innocent person being murdered. It's an innocent person being maimed or an innocent person having their life ripped apart. That is cruel and unusual punishment."
The Criminal Code provision the court struck down was ushered in by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
Conservative MPs Rob Moore and Pierre Paul-Hus said Friday the court decision was extremely disappointing and failed to stand up for the rights of victims.
"This ruling means that families of victims will be forced to sit through years of parole hearings with their family member's killer, adding to the trauma they face and putting them through another cycle of revictimization," they said in a statement.
"Further, this decision fails to recognize the value and rights of victims of these despicable acts, and allows for sentences that simply do not reflect the severity of crimes like mass murders."
NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice said the Muslim community is still reeling from the mosque attack, adding the Supreme Court ruling must be very difficult for members to hear.
"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."
The National Council of Canadian Muslims, which had intervener status in the Supreme Court case, noted Bissonnette will be eligible to request parole in 20 years, having already spent five years in prison.
"Today, we are thinking about the families," said council CEO Mustafa Farooq. "Their pain has never fully healed, and their wounds are reopened today as they struggle with the possibility of being among the one who killed their loved ones that night."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2022.
— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee, Keith Doucette and Liam Casey
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press