Has treason run its course in Canada?

If anyone would wish to write a book on the history of treason in Canada in the 20th century, heed this fair warning: it would be rather slim.

To be fair, our country is well prepared to deal with treasonous behaviour and activity. Section 46 of the Criminal Code of Canada has provisions for both “high treason” (which includes provisions for war, as well as the assassination – or attempted assassination – of the Queen) and “treason” (which includes provisions for attempting to overthrow a federal or provincial government, as well as conspiring with a group or individual in the act of high treason).

Yet, instances of convictions for treason in Canada have been few. Since Louis Riel was hanged for treason on November 16, 1885, only one other Canadian citizen (Inouye Kanao, also known as the “Kamloops Kid”) has been executed for the same crime – and that happened on foreign soil.

Also, although there cases that could be described as nominally treasonous – such as the FLQ crisis, Air India and the Toronto 18 terrorist plot – none of the participants were charged under Canada’s legal definition of treason.

Obviously, Canadians should feel secure in the knowledge that treasonous activity isn’t common. But is it an accurate depiction of treasonous behaviour in Canada? Or does it show that our judicial system is unwilling to consider actions that appear like treason, to be defined as treason?

Will there ever be another case of treason in Canada?

There are various reasons why treasonous activities have gradually become less of a major concern in Canada. They are as follows:

First, Canada’s legal definition of treason is broad yet narrowly based.

In lawyer Bob Tarantino’s view, Canada’s definition of treason is rather broad. He wrote, “you do not need to be a Canadian citizen to commit treason, and if you are a Canadian citizen or a ‘person who owes allegiance to Her Majesty,’ any treasonable acts are prosecutable whether they were committed in Canada or outside of the country.”

On the surface, that’s a fair analysis. However, it could also be argued that the legal definition of treason is also narrowly based. Our legal parameters simply haven’t included nominal instances of modern treason, such as the FLQ crisis. Instead, there is more focus in modern Canadian law on the lighter charge of sedition, or the rebelling against and/or opposition to an existing order – which is what the FLQ faced as one of its charges. This could ultimately mean that previously understood cases of treason in the past won’t fall (and aren’t falling) under the same legal definition in the present and future.

Second, when it comes to punishing those people, our country’s legal and judicial system falls far short of expectations.

Activist judges on the Supreme Court of Canada are, as London Free Press columnist Rory Leishman writes, “not loathe to commit major breaks with precedent for the purpose of changing the law to accord with their personal ideological preferences.” With this in mind, it’s unlikely that a future accusation of treason would last long enough to survive the claws of judicial activism in Canada. And if politicians and judges are unwilling to enact proper amounts of punishment for certain crimes, treasonous behaviour will most certainly not be properly punished, either.

Third, Canada has a minor role in international affairs and this has arguably led to fewer instances of what be generally agreed on to be treason.

While our country is now willing to take the lead in military missions like Afghanistan, support forceful stands against terrorist groups like Hamas, and walk out on UN speeches from vicious tyrants such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in spite of this, Canada is still regarded as a middle power (at best) on the international scene. Therefore, it’s a less valuable resource for potential treasonous acts than in larger countries like Britain, Germany, and the U.S. due to a lack of power, influence, key stakeholders and available information. This perception could change in time depending on Canada’s willingness to get involved in world affairs in a post-Harper government. But at this moment, our country’s influence is more associated with strong words rather than brute force – meaning that we are still seen as being a minor player.

Fourth, Canada has not suffered Western Europe’s fate with terrorist cells and immigration problems…yet.

To date, Canada’s experience with terrorist groups and third world immigration has not reached Western European levels. For instance, it’s true that terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Egyptian Islamic Jihad previously established small bases on our soil. But Canada has still not faced France’s 2005 race-based riots, or Denmark’s 2006 cartoon controversy, or wide-ranging concerns that the growth of radical Islamic thought in Western Europe is well underway. It’s possible that Canada could face some of these problems – and more – in due course, which could lead to a surge in treasonous-like activity. For now, this is not the case.

This does not mean Canadians should have a lax attitude about treason. Far from it. We should always be on guard to prevent this type of behavioural pattern from spreading, and our laws should become stronger and tougher to make our citizens safer and more secure. But as things currently stand, it appears treason as a common occurrence and a crime actively prosecuted may have run its course in Canadian society.

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