Dozens of local students walked out of classes on Wednesday afternoon to show their disgust towards a recently announced Supreme Court of Canada decision that will allow criminal defendants to use self-induced extreme intoxication as a defence against assault.
With the decision, defendants who voluntarily consume intoxicating substances and then commit assault, including sexual assault, can use intoxication as a defence if they can prove they were unable to control their actions.
Students, primarily from nearby Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute (LCVI), walked out of classes around noon and a crowd formed near the Kingston Centre at the intersection of Sir John A. and Bath.
Protesting students said news of the pending walkout spread on Snapchat, and though many didn’t know where the idea originated they felt it was a worthy cause for the demonstration.
Mia Gray, one of many students at LCVI dismayed by the ruling said a decision like this will make young girls feel increasingly unsafe, especially when going to parties.
She said she feels like this is a decision that hampers progress made in Canada.
“It just seems like we’ve come so far and to pass this law would almost feel like we’re back tracking,” Gray said.
“We’re trying to make excuses for something that is totally unacceptable.”
The ruling was unanimously passed by all nine sitting judges, and at this particular time pertains to a Calgary man’s acquittal of a violent crime in 2018.
The incident saw Matthew Winston Brown consume alcohol and psilocybin at a party in Calgary, Alberta, proceeding to lose his grip on reality and leave the party before breaking into a woman’s home and violently attacking her.
The Supreme Court decision allows Brown, or others deemed to be in a state of “automatism”, to justify an assault under the premise that they had no control over what they were doing.
The Crown previously used section 33.1 of the Criminal Code to deem Brown guilty of his crimes, but the Supreme Court now says that section violates section 7 and 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and as such is deemed unconstitutional.
“To deprive a person of their liberty for that involuntary conduct committed in a state akin to automatism — conduct that cannot be criminal — violates the principles of fundamental justice in a system of criminal justice based on personal responsibility for one’s actions,” wrote Justice Nicholas Kasirer.
Students involved in the walkout, and a chorus of other voices throughout Canada, have found the decision appalling.
They said the message today wasn’t meant for a person in particular, but is a message that needs to be heard loudly.
“Considering teenagers can see that this is wrong how can the Supreme Court of Canada not see that it’s wrong?” said student Clara Alves.
“We can’t change any laws but we can make sure that our voices are heard.”
In the decision, the Supreme Court also notes that Parliament could enact new legislation to hold an extremely intoxicated person responsible for violent crimes.
The Court emphasized in their decision that “protecting the victims of violent crime – particularly in light of the equality and dignity interests of women and children who are vulnerable to intoxicated sexual and domestic acts – is a pressing and substantial social purpose”.
Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres Coordinator Nicole Pietsch says she’s glad someone at least acknowledged that the gap that now exists in the system as far as protecting victims, but is concerned with the lack of clarity.
“I don’t really know what that protection will look like,” Pietsch said.
“I think it is really key that our Federal Ministers in Parliament start thinking quickly about what that protection could look like and how it could be operationalized so that this doesn’t become a common defence.”
She says although this defence has to this point been used incredibly rarely, and in extreme cases where perpetrators were deemed to be in psychosis or delusional, there are concerns that making it more accessible will lead to it coming up more often.
Pietsch says that this decision, without appropriate protections, further complicates an already grueling process for victims of sexual assault.
“There’s just far too many myths and misconceptions around sexual victimization already that come into play and get in the way of successful criminal cases,” Pietsch said.
“Most of those are either victim blaming, so that the victim is held accountable for not preventing something; and the other way is in which offenders are often not held responsible for their actions and we could see this going down that road.”
Pietsch said outside of sexual assault, there are concerns this could open up the door for those who commit hate crimes to use intoxication as a defence.
Overall, she says, this will put already vulnerable people in more danger.
“To suggest that a crime could occur where someone’s target but, you know, the accused is not responsible,” Pietsch said.
“It really does invisiblize the reality that, in fact, there are certain people who are targeted for certain types of crimes.”