On First Looking At the New Code Amendments (with thanks to Keats for the title)

In March of 2017, the federal government renewed its commitment to modernize the Criminal Code by tabling legislation to repeal the so-called “Zombie” laws – a term coined by Professor Peter Sankoff to denote those criminal laws that are the “walking dead” of the Criminal Code – still on the books but deemed unconstitutional. Although a step in the right direction, this announcement seemed like a “no brainer.” It also just happens to be consistent with the mandate letter, sent by the Prime Minister to the Minster of Justice, admonishing the Minister to uphold the Constitution and respect the Charter.

Besides repealing the unconstitutional sections, the list of problems with the Criminal Code remains. This list is, well, longer than the Code should you desire to place each page side by side. With well over 849 sections (considering the “accordion” sections whereby the government folded in between sections, other sections, such as the 33 sections residing between s. 487 and s. 488: for further information read my blog entitled The Infinite Lists of The Law), the Code is a statutory behemoth, a virtual cornucopia of delights including archaic laws such as the rarely used forcible detainer at s. 72(2)) jumbled with brand new crimes, once considered regulatory offences, such as the new offence (circa 2014) of selling unpackaged stamp-less tobacco products under s. 121.1.

Recently, however, the government appears to be taking another step toward the modern by unveiling their revisionist vision through some new amendments to Code sections. This came about serendipitously as the government needed to fulfill an election promise of decriminalizing the use of marijuana. To do this, the government realized they needed to not only remove laws but to fix them. So as part of the modernization of our drug laws, the government revised the Criminal Code sections on impaired driving (sections 253 to 259), and while they were in the area anyway, to freshen up the other driving offences, namely dangerous driving under s. 249, with a “new look.”

As soon as these legislative changes were tabled in Parliament, everyone brought out the magnifying glasses. Each word of the proposed legislation, newly delivered, has been scrutinized. Mainly, the focus is on the impaired driving amendments, which, quite frankly, look a little Charter unfriendly, despite the stern warning of that mandate letter to be respectful. But leaving the Charter aside, which it appears the government may be doing with these sections, let us not consider the minutiae of this Bill, rather let us consider the general efficacy of the government’s approach.

Putting away our magnifiers then, we should consider the “big picture,” and ask whether the federal government is truly modernizing the criminal law and bringing it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. It would appear, in fact, at least with the impaired driving amendments, that this is not what is happening. It would appear the government is instead merely back filling; reacting to weaknesses in the old legislation by plugging up the holes, like the little Dutch boy, to ensure the dike doesn’t leak. The changes are therefore reactive, not proactive. They are backward looking, not forward facing. The drafting of these new sections does not assist us in walking toward the future. The sections are prolix and dense. Furthermore, the amendments do not send the message of a new Canada which is tolerant, diverse and progressive. The sections download onto the citizen the burden of ensuring that their conduct, even after they are no longer driving, wherever they may be, whatever their emotional or physical state may be, is reasonable. Whatever that means. At the same time, the new sections relieve the state of the burden of justifying the use of its authority to investigate. Even without glasses, it seems the revisions are not very 21st century.

Turning to the other changes, quietly placed in the Bill is the new Part VIII.1 (which by the way is still perpetuating the archaic use of Roman Numerals) entitled “Offences Relating To Conveyances”. At first blush, one has visions of property offences relating to land titles. On a closer look, the “recognition and declaration” (the only other legislation this kind of section is found is in the Alberta Bill of Rights, RSA, 2000) in section 320.12 advises us what we already were told by Justice Cory in Hundal that licensing, as in operating a “conveyance,” is a privilege and the rules of the road, so to speak, must be observed. Section 320.11 defines “conveyance” as a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft or railway equipment. These conveyances were also subject of the now to be replaced dangerous operation section 249. Section 320.13, as the new dangerous operation section, creates an offence where a conveyance is operated, having regard to all of the circumstances, dangerous to the public. The soon-to-be-replaced s. 249 is similarly worded, although it gives a clearer description of what those circumstances could be, such as “the nature, condition and use of the place” of operation.

After this closer look, it becomes clear that this “new” Part is not really new at all but merely a short hand version of the old.  The new changes are not a change but a touch up, a change in nomenclature, maybe even a nod to the past case law. Again, what is the impetus of this change? The decriminalization of marijuana, which requires a change to the impaired driving laws, which requires the government to react to previous case law by filling in legislative gaps, which requires the government to change all of the driving offences, which causes the government to show they are modernizing the Code by simplifying the sections.

What needs to be done instead of modernization for the sake of modernizing is a thoughtful and deliberate consideration of the whole of the Code. What needs to be done is a rethinking of our criminal law not as a jumble of sections prohibited conduct but as a unified reflection of societal values. This includes all of what the criminal law stands for such as the integrity of the administration of justice itself.  This requires, as suggested by the Supreme Court of Canada in Jordan, a cultural change. Not just a “new look” but a different perspective. To do this, instead of taking a page from the Code, let’s learn from our case law and use the principled or contextual approach to change. Real change is only possible if we design laws holistically mindful of the law as a mere part of the larger social fabric. Laws can act as visual markers, creating and defining social space in a community. Successful laws will therefore integrate with society, be flexible to societal needs and frame societal space. The Criminal Code must therefore be considered as part of the social landscape and be created as a marker of who we are, not as a headstone marking the past. The federal government has an opportunity to do this, let’s hope that in the next step to rethinking the Criminal Code, they will fulfill their promise and do just that.