Legality doesn’t equal morality

Laws are often from less progressive times and should be treated as such

Just because something’s legal, doesn’t make it right. PHOTO: Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

by Alex Masse, Staff Writer

From a young age, many of us are given a very particular image of the law. We are taught that it is this grandiose, impartial, and moral entity that separates right from wrong. But it’s a dangerous game, conflating morality with legality.

The thing about the legal system is that, like much of our society today, it was founded by imperfect people in imperfect ways. Canada’s very founder, John A. Macdonald, has a long list of horrifying actions to his name. While society has changed, we can’t forget that our laws were put into place by previous generations, and they shouldn’t be treated as an immovable, impartial monolith. 

Our laws hold the biases of those that came before us, biases that benefit certain groups, such as wealthy people over working class people. A punishment that’s life-changing for the latter can be easily brushed off by the former. When infamous billionaire Jeff Bezos was renovating his mansion, he accrued $16,000 in parking tickets, which he shrugged off in a way most people can only dream of. For some, even one parking ticket can have huge negative impacts.

This legal bias also extends to other marginalized groups. Regarding Indigenous peoples, the case of oppression is so severe that the UN has called Canada out for it. It’s not unwarranted, either; the Canadian government has time and time again violated the Indigenous populace’s sovereignty. The construction of an unwanted pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory has even led to the Wet’suwet’en people bringing a court case to highlight the issue — because apparently the pipeline’s legality needed debate. On top of that, both Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately persecuted for possession of marijuana before it was legal. This shows that bias can be found in many aspects of the legal system, from the penning of laws to the enforcement of them. 

These are just a couple of cases. There are many outdated laws that still haven’t been officially removed. While criminalized in the City of Vancouver, conversion therapy remains legal in BC. Other laws which have long been recognized as unjust have only very recently been removed. Same-sex marriage was only legalized in Canada in 2005 and it took until 2017 in Canada for trans people to be legally protected against discrimination — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been protected before.

Slavery, too, was once legal. In Canada, it was common practice for over 200 years. Though slavery may technically be over, exploitation of labour unfortunately continues today, such as with the “employment” of Californian prisoners to fight the state’s wildfires. They were paid less than three dollars an hour and only recently got the right to work as civilian firefighters after their sentence. This would mortify much of the greater public, yet continues to happen rightfully under the law.

We need to treat the law as what it is: a system built on a flawed, biased foundation, one that should be considered malleable by future generations. As our morals evolve, we need to make sure the law follows.