Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let the accused, convicted run for office

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There is some consternation about the fact a man charged with sexually related offences is permitted to run for a seat in the Manitoba legislature. Darrell Ackman has filed legal nomination papers contesting the coming Fort Whyte byelection. Ackman is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The fact he has been charged with a criminal offence will be prominently known to the voters in the constituency.

It is surprising the publicity given to his situation has not deterred him from running. But if he maintains his innocence, why does being charged disqualify him? He will have great difficulty convincing the voters to elect him but he does have, and should have, the legal right to do so.

Realistically, the politics of the byelection dictate Ackman would require a miracle in any event. He is running against the new leader of the Conservative party in a safe Conservative seat. Even if Ackman did not have the handicap of the unfavourable publicity associated with his charges, he would have virtually no chance of winning the seat.

Given the unfavourable publicity, his chances are virtually as good as the proverbial snowball in hell. Leaving his name on the ballot does no harm whatsoever and preserves the right of the people to decide, and decide they will.

But a change in the rules, as some advocate for, could do a great deal of harm. I am aware some jurisdictions do have laws that provide for certain disqualification provisions, but I question their necessity. If a person has been convicted of a crime but protests their innocence, they should have a final appeal to the public who have a right to decide the conviction should not be an impediment.

The public may choose to decide the court was wrong.

Indeed, we have historical precedent to show the democratic process can overrule the courts. In 1920, three labour leaders -- John Queen, William Ivens and George Armstrong -- were convicted of the criminal offence of seditious conspiracy. They were each sentenced to imprisonment. While in a provincial jail they were nominated and then elected while still serving their terms. Queen ultimately served several distinguished terms as mayor of Winnipeg despite his criminal record.

At one time, in order to obtain a city licence to operate a restaurant, it was necessary to obtain a certificate of good character from the chief of police. The province's law society made admission as a member conditional on the vague category of good character and the absence of a criminal conviction. No allowance was made for the fact a person had served their sentence and presumably paid their debt to society. The criminal record superseded such considerations. The applicant was presumably told they could not be a lawyer and should go back to stealing for a living.

No allowance was made for the possibility the courts were wrong. Surely the Dreyfus case, where an innocent man was forced to spend several years on Devils Island for a crime he did not commit, should alert us to the fact it is possible. The Sacco and Vanzetti executions in the United States are another example of how the most distinguished and respected authorities can engineer an unjust condemnation. The fact the government of Massachusetts ultimately absolved the two innocent Italian radicals gave the electrocuted victims not much solace.

But even excluding the possibility of error, or as in the Dreyfus case, worse than error but actual frame-up, there is little to be lost and much to be gained by eliminating legal disqualifications and letting the people decide.

The former NDP MP Frank Howard served a distinguished career in the House of Commons. He made a significant contribution to the country, and achieved personal self-realization as a productive citizen. But he had, prior to his election, a criminal record for having committed an armed robbery, which is not in dispute.

Disqualification would have cost the country the benefit not only of his contribution, but his example of rehabilitation. The people of his constituency made the decision that he should not be disqualified.

The people made the right decision and can be trusted to make the right decision in Fort Whyte.

Sid Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2012 A11

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