Canada’s new and stricter impaired driving laws have been in effect since December 18 and have since received opposition for unfairly targeting visible minorities.
The bill raises maximum penalties for impaired driving offences, disallows drivers from being at or over the prohibited alcohol level within two hours of driving, and gives police full discretion to administer breathalyzers without reasonable suspicion that the driver is intoxicated.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has expressed their concerns with this law to the House of Commons. A post on their website explains that they “voiced particular concern about the impact that random breath testing will have on individuals who come from minority communities.” Along with the CCLA, other formal complaints have been filed by the BC Civil Liberties Association and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
June Francis, director of the Institute for Diaspora Research & Engagement at SFU, said in a phone interview with The Peak that “the reason there is a problem with this law is primarily [that] the law gives much more discretion and leeway for the police to demand mandatory breathalyzers from people. In other words, it gives the police discretionary power.”
This is problematic, Francis says, because of the significant and growing evidence that the Canadian police have exercised their leeway “to the detriment of certain visible minority groups.”
Police data between 2008 and 2017 show that Black people and Indigenous people are overrepresented in Vancouver police checks. Francis believes that the new law could amplify this disproportion.
Francis explained that not only are Black people and Indigenous people stopped more often, but police are more likely to escalate these encounters.
“We are already suspected [ . . . ] we tend to be dealt with harsher, we tend to not be able to defend ourselves in any way, so that means that we’re vulnerable to more violations of our rights,” said Francis.
She added that it is not just about the inconvenience of being stopped by the police, but the fact that certain visible minorities are subjected to abuse and are more likely to be hurt.
According to OurWindsor, spokesperson for the RCMP Sgt. Maria Damian announced that the RCMP follow a “bias-free policing policy,” which involves the “‘equitable treatment of all persons’ regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnic background.”
Global News reported Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair’s take on the issue, summarizing his view that “if a police stop were motivated by bias, it would be unlawful and contrary to the charter, and therefore a breath test would be inadmissible in court.”
After The Peak asked Francis for her opinion on this, Francis noted that “we don’t have the tools to extort that notion of non-partiality [ . . . ] that is a [disingenuous] argument to make because we cannot prove bias easily.”
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said to the Globe and Mail that “the intent is to save lives, and this is an incredibly justifiable purpose,” and noted to Global News that the law is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
While Francis acknowledges that “we all collectively understand the need to think about safety on the road,” she believes that the notion of reasonable suspicion must exist, because “when you start to give police carte blanche, you are [ . . . ] opening it up to abuse.
“This problem is not just a problem of the racialized communities. This is a problem for all Canadians to defend us.”
With files from Global News, The Star Vancouver, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, CTV News, Our Windsor, and The Globe and Mail.