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Tens of thousands of Canadians could soon be eligible for a pot pardon, but lawyers warn about limitations




The Liberal government’s announcement that it will expedite the processing of pardons for people with minor cannabis-related criminal records is welcome news to tens of thousands of Canadians who have been convicted of possession offences.

And while the Parole Board of Canada might soon be inundated with record suspension requests — more than 500,000 Canadians have a criminal record for having pot on their person, according to a 2014 study — advocates claim the Liberal plan might not go far enough to reverse decades of « historical injustice » from cannabis prohibition.

The number of Canadians convicted of simple pot possession offences each year has been on the decline since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his plan to legalize and regulate the drug. His 2015 election victory all but assured a legal change — and yet some 55,000 Canadians were arrested for cannabis-related possession offences in 2016 alone, according to Statistics Canada.

Even if one were to assume many of those arrests do not ultimately result in convictions, the number of Canadians with a criminal past for possession of the drug — one that is now legal — is still a staggering figure.

Watch as Trudeau speaks about cannabis legalization: 

The Prime Minister spoke to reporters as he arrived for his weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday morning 2:25

Thus, the government’s pledge to waive the steep fee for a record suspension (pardon) — it normally costs $631 — and do away with the standard waiting period (five years for a summary offence, 10 years for an indictable offence) could be a truly life-changing move for a sizeable minority of Canadians.

« I think today’s a historic day. Canada is doing something monumental, » Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, the director of research at Cannabis Amnesty, a not-for-profit that has fought for a solution for those with criminal records for cannabis possession, said in an interview on Wednesday.

« It’s fantastic to hear the government is recognizing the harms that have been done by criminalizing people, » he said.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the move will « shed the burden and stigma » and break down barriers to jobs, education, housing or volunteer work.

A record suspension does not erase the fact someone committed a crime. Rather, it keeps the record separate from other criminal records in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database.

Lack of a pardon timeline problematic

The government was light on details Wednesday — affirming only that the process would be free, and waiting periods would be eliminated — while promising legislation would soon be introduced in the House of Commons.

Michael Spratt, a prominent criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa, said the pardon pledge is a « step in the right direction » but the lack of a firm timeline is problematic.

« It’s a bit charitable to call it a plan. There’s no legislation before Parliament and there aren’t many details, » Spratt said in an interview with CBC News.

« A lot of things remain to be seen about how it’s actually going to play out and, given the upcoming election, if it’s going to play out at all. »

A big question for Spratt is just how broad the government will « cast the pardon net, » and he questions whether the application process will be open to people convicted of other offences or for people who have breached probation.

With a standard processing time of 6-12 months for a record suspension, people with a history of cannabis convictions are still at least a year away from having some form of record relief.

« A plan to deal with historic marijuana offences is something the government shouldn’t have waited on. It’s widely acknowledged the devastating harm that a criminal record can have and so every day we delay in correcting those injustices is a day too long, » Spratt said.

David-George Oldman smokes marijuana outside the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

When asked why a bill was not already drafted and ready for introduction Wednesday — the legalization date has been known for months — Goodale said the government did not want to pursue such a regime until the 100-year-old prohibition of the drug was officially lifted.

Pardons have limitations

And despite the promise of having a record suppressed, criminal lawyers are warning that a pot pardon has its limitations.

Firstly, it is not an expungement, which is another, far more robust form of record relief for people who have been convicted of a crime.

An expungement goes one step further than a pardon, destroying all known government records of the offence.

When an expungement is ordered, the person convicted of the offence is deemed never to have been convicted of that offence in the first place. With a pardon, a person is still considered a past criminal and they would still have to check the « convicted of a criminal offence » box on an application for housing or employment.

Watch as Prime Minister apologies to LGBTQ people:

The Prime Minister apologizes to LGBT people who lost their careers in the military and security services because of the sexual orientation 1:06

The government recently offered to expunge criminal records for LGBTQ people who were convicted of certain crimes that have now been deemed « historically unjust, » with eligibility limited to three offences: gross indecency, buggery and anal intercourse.

Owusu-Bempah said a similar expungement should be extended to people with a cannabis possession criminal history in large part because those laws were often applied disproportionately to Indigenous people and black Canadians.

« I think historical injustices come in to play [with cannabis] as it was done with crimes of buggery. There were disparities across the country in the application of some of the law. Indigenous populations and black peoples have been saddled with the impact of a criminal record, the burden of a criminal record, when the drug has been widely used, » Owusu-Bempah said.

A spokesperson for Goodale said while there is no doubt « certain communities have been disproportionately affected » by the way cannabis laws have been enforced, « expungement is an extraordinary measure intended to be used when the injustice is inherent in the law itself, as was the case with the prohibition of sexual activity between same-sex partners, rather than a matter of how the law is enforced. »

Application process onerous for marginalized people

Spratt said many of the people who have been hit with possession-related charges in recent years — even as police have slowed such activity — are overwhelmingly marginalized groups like racial minorities, people with prior records or mental health issues, and the poor.

« I’ve definitely seen a decrease in white, middle class university students who are facing these charges, » he said.

Spratt said many disadvantaged people will have trouble fulfilling the « onerous » process required to apply for a pardon, including obtaining court records, procuring digital fingerprints and generally fulfilling all the other requirements of the 10-step process.

A woman smokes marijuana during a 4/20 rally in Toronto. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

« I don’t think it would be unreasonable to just offer blanket expungements for those offences, » Spratt said. « I’m worried the process … might still have some disproportionate impacts on some of the very people you want to help. »

Spratt also noted the government said Wednesday a person has to complete their criminal sentence before applying for a pardon, which includes paying all fines and victim fine surcharges that might be associated with a conviction.

« A $500 fine might be something that a more affluent person can easily pay but if you’re living in poverty, and your drug record is preventing you from moving ahead in a pro-social way, it might be difficult to pay off those fine orders before the pardon is available, » he said.

Moreover, even if one is successful in securing a pardon, it does not mean it will make it easier to cross the Canada-U.S. border.

No guarantees at U.S. border

The U.S. Custom and Border Protection agency was clear Wednesday: the U.S. recognizes foreign convictions for something that would be a crime in their country, and it does not recognize foreign pardons.

Speaking in Buffalo, Richard Roberts, the CBP assistant director of border security, said Canadian pardons or « amnesty » are simply not considered under U.S. border admissibility law.

Watch as Public Safety Minister warns Canadians who use cannabis about issues at the U.S. border: 

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale warns Canadians who use pot that crossing into the United States isn’t a guarantee just because it’s now legal in Canada. 1:36

« They could still be found inadmissible, » he said. « Yes the law has changed [in Canada] but really, at the border, this is business as usual for us. »

But Goodale’s office noted, in the case of the U.S. border, there might actually be an upside to government offering pardons rather than expungements for cannabis offences.

« If the United States has a record of your expunged conviction and denies you entry, there will be no records to retrieve while seeking a waiver to enter the U.S., » a spokesperson said.


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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