Harper government's omnibus crime bill gets outed

Violence is on the decline, and we are living in the most peaceful century in history.

It’s an optimistic but controversial statement about our world, and it’s the claim of Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who recently spoke in Ottawa.

Pinker is the author of a provocative new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, which claims there has been a centuries-long decline in violence and seeks to explain why. His book could not have come at a better time for Canada.

With the Conservative government trying to push through the expensive and excessive C-10 crime bill, the Harper team could benefit from Pinker’s primary points: Context matters, and so do statistics.

It’s common for us to claim the 20th century as the bloodiest in history. With two world wars, the introduction of nuclear weaponry, and countless inter- and inner-state conflicts, who can blame us? But Pinker points out that we’re suffering from a lack of context: When you compare recent history to centuries of human existence, he says, we’ve got it pretty good. Analysing deaths as a percentage of population, Pinker argues we are less likely to die a violent death than any other people in history. In making his 848-page argument, Pinker uses an extraordinary heap of historical data and statistics. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, you can’t say he wasn’t abundant in his research.

The Conservative government should take a cue from Pinker and harness the power of data, statistics and context. The Canadian crime rate is at its lowest since the 1970s, but Harper and his justice minister are more interested in packing our prisons than the facts. The following gem came from federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, “We do not use statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals.” (A sentiment to which Jean-Marc Fournier, Quebec’s justice minister, later responded, “Science is useful. At some point, someone discovered that the Earth is round.”)

If what Nicholson says is true, the government is putting forward a costly bill in the face of the lowest homicide and crime rates in decades. (Homicide rates are more likely to be reported than any other crime and so are an indicator of a country’s general crime trends). It’s doing this in the context of an already enormous increase in federal prison costs since the Conservatives took power, and despite a significant amount of solid research that suggests filling prisons is not the path to a crime-free nation.

It’s time for the federal government to get some hard data and start thinking critically. They need to explain from where their decisions come, if not from empirical evidence. I want a government that proposes informed legislature based on what’s best for Canadians — and that can’t only come from public opinion. Just because approximately 44 per cent of Canadians think crime is on the rise (according to a 2010 Angus Reid poll) doesn’t make it so.

To Harper and Nicholson: Since you and your party seem to have missed the class on crime in Canada, I have created for you a very brief cheat sheet. It includes a small sample of the information you may want to consider next time you approach the topic. And yes, you may use it in Parliament.

About the writer:

Amanda Shendruk is a young entrepreneur and owner of Aesthetic Intelligence, an information design company in Ottawa. Twitter:@ashendruk

Internet site reference: http://www.OttawaCitizen.com


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