IN THE SPRING of 1981, Gary Rosenfeldt’s 16-year-old son, Daryn, was brutally raped and killed by Clifford Olson. A year after the boy’s body was found near Mission, B.C., Olson was sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility of parole for 25 years for the murders of Daryn and 10 other children. He’s been locked up in federal prisons ever since, petitioning for early parole, a better cell and free Tylenol, among other things.
Recently, to Rosenfeldt’s horror, Olson’s rights were extended to include voting in a federal election. Due to a controversial 2002 Supreme Court decision, roughly 12,500 federal prisoners will be eligible to cast ballots, in special advance polls on June 18. “It’s the worst possible insult to victims everywhere,” says Rosenfeldt, co-founder of the lobby group Victims of Violence.
The ruling was the result of a legal battle dating back to 1984, when Richard Sauvéa former biker-gang member serving a life sentence for first-degree murder-launched a court challenge arguing that barring inmates from voting was a violation of the newly minted Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prisoners’ rights groups have hailed the court’s 2002 decision as a major human rights victory. “By giving an inmate the right to vote, you’re holding out some hope of rehabilitation,” says Fergus O’Connor, Sauvé’s lawyer in the lawsuit. “By taking it away, you’re demeaning him as a human being with no evidence that it benefits anybody.”
Now, specially designated Elections Canada “liaison officers” are distributing pamphlets and educating inmates on the voting process. Prisoners’ votes don’t necessarily count where they are cast. Rather, Elections Canada uses a list of address options, starting with their home riding, their spouse’s riding, or where they were last arrested or tried, to determine a prisoner’s riding. Inmates have voted before in provincial and municipal elections, but there’s no way of predicting where each ballot will count this time.
Still, critics say the Ontario riding of
Kingston and the Islands—in which seven federal facilities house roughly 1,500 inmates-is of special concern. According to Conservative candidate Blair MacLean, a great many prisoners will likely be casting their ballots there. He attributes this to the number of inmates’ spouses who have moved to the area to be close to their partners. As for the overall issue, he says, “I wonder how it happened that the likes of a Paul Bernardo could have the opportunity to decide the result of a close election?”
Barbara Hill of the John Howard Society, who facilitates weekly discussion groups with inmates at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, points out that prisoners’ voting habits are as eclectic as the general public’s. “One would think they’d somehow be left-leaning, but their political leanings really run the gamut,” she says. Also, according to Diane Russon, the Ontario spokesperson for Correctional Services Canada, voter turnout among inmates tends to be “much lower than it is in the general population.”
That’s little solace for Rosenfeldt. He and his Victims of Violence are now pursuing their one remaining recourse-amending the Constitution. “Our members will be writing their members of parliament, promoting and pushing,” he says. “We want to see this right taken away-period.”
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