A major increase in prison time to convicted sex predator Graham James is being met with cautious optimism that Canada has taken an important step in protecting vulnerable victims.
Manitoba's highest court announced Friday it was overturning the "unfit" two-year term given to James and replacing it with a five-year penalty. The Appeal Court said the original sentence was much too lenient for such a major breach of trust, which includes hundreds of actual offences.
"The accused's conduct caused significant, destructive and ruinous consequences at the time the assaults occurred and thereafter, as regards to each of the victims, their families, and overall the victims' lives and careers," Justice Alan MacInnes wrote in the 27-page decision.
James, 59, admitted last March to sexually abusing two former junior hockey players he coached on numerous occasions between 1983 and 1994.
"You've got to walk before you can run. But we have an opportunity now to make a real dent in this," retired NHL star Theoren Fleury told the Free Press on Friday. He admitted to being pleasantly "shocked" that the high court announced a 150 per cent increase to James' penalty.
Earlier in the day, Fleury called it a "great day for survivors" on his Twitter account. He told the Free Press there is still much work to be done to ensure Canada isn't the "Disneyland for pedophiles" he proclaimed it to be following James' original sentencing hearing last year.
"It still has to go higher or the cycle will never stop. But if I see more of this sort of thing happening, I may retract that statement," Fleury said.
Roz Prober, the founder of Winnipeg-based child advocacy group Beyond Borders, said she hopes a tough new benchmark has been established in this case.
"This is what sex offenders against children should expect," said Prober. "It's certainly a breakthrough for victims. Bravo, we're very thankful. This was an enough-is-enough type of sentence."
Fleury said he's glad this case has caught the attention of federal politicians and hopes tougher legislation is on the way. Ultimately, Fleury would like to see a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for each count of sexual abuse, to be served consecutively. He also wants legal repercussions for anyone who doesn't report incidents of sexual abuse.
James became eligible for day parole last fall after serving one-sixth of his original sentence. He became eligible for full parole when he served one-third of his penalty by late November. However, the National Parole Board did not receive any applications from him.
James has now served 11 months of his revamped 60-month sentence. That means he is still eligible to apply for immediate day parole because he has already done more than one-sixth (10 months). He will be eligible for full parole at the 20-month mark, which will come in November.
Prosecutor Liz Thomson appeared before the Appeal Court last December and argued the two-year penalty James received -- dubbed a "national travesty" by his two victims -- was not nearly enough. She was seeking a six-year sentence, saying it's the only way to express society's condemnation of such a crime.
Defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg had urged the three-justice panel not to interfere, saying James is a changed man who has earned a second chance. Roitenberg said the fact James has gone nearly two decades since he offended without being arrested again shows he is no longer a public danger.
"There is proven rehabilitation here," said Roitenberg, who suggested his client was under the mistaken belief his young players were interested in romantic relationships with him. That didn't seem to sit well with Justice MacInnes at the time.
"You are pushing a big rock up a steep hill if you want me to accept that," said MacInnes. "What occurred here was incredibly egregious. He was not just their guardian, he controlled their futures. He effectively destroyed them by his conduct."
At James' original sentencing hearing, Crown attorney Colleen McDuff told court James specifically targeted players for abuse, even making trades in the Western Hockey League "for players he thought were good-looking."
In their notice of appeal, the Crown argued provincial court Judge Catherine Carlson erred in her approach to the sentence, overemphasized the significance of prior sentences for similar offences and erred in assessing the "totality principle," which holds that jail time for multiple offences must be fair and reasonable when added together. The Appeal Court agreed Friday with all the points.
James was previously sentenced in 1997 to 31/2 years for sexual assaults on three other junior hockey players around the same time he abused Fleury and fellow player Todd Holt. But both those victims waited until years after the fact to go to police. James received a controversial pardon in 2007 for his earlier set of offences, but it was revoked after his most recent arrest.