Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cemetery protection too weak

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Last week, vandals knocked over roughly two dozen headstones at the Hebrew Sick Benefit Cemetery in northwest Winnipeg. Damage was fairly minimal, but the estimated cost to right the headstones is $40,000 to $60,000.

No one has yet been charged with the wreckage in the West Kildonan cemetery. However, the perpetrator or perpetrators, if caught, likely won't pay a hefty price for their desecration.

In Canada, what the vandals would be charged with is the inaptly named crime of mischief, which suggests something akin to a prank or practical joke. The punishment for mischief also often borders on a joke. Mischief carries a maximum penalty, rarely imposed, of two years' imprisonment.

In an attempt to stiffen the punishment for attacks on consecrated buildings and monuments, Canada's Criminal Code was amended more than a decade ago. Added to the Code was a new species of mischief committed against a church, mosque, synagogue or temple and any religious-worship objects located on their grounds or in a cemetery. It carries a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment.

However, that offence has proved a toothless tiger.

That's because to successfully prosecute damage to religious structures or icons the Crown bears the burden of proving the destruction was "motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on religion, race, colour or national or ethnic origin." In other words, the prosecution has to prove a vandal consciously acted out of bigotry or prejudice when pushing over a headstone or smashing a mausoleum. And in practice, that's tough to do.

The Criminal Code should be amended to add a second class of mischief against consecrated lands and objects that doesn't require proof of religious or racial hate. The maximum penalty for vandalism attacks should also be increased, to at least five years.

Places of worship usually don't have elaborate security. Still less so cemeteries, which are also often remotely located. This makes them easy targets for vandals.

Once upon a time, public veneration of the dead and respect for their last resting place was sufficient to deter cemetery vandalism. Not so anymore.

Still, attacks on graveyards are a particularly heinous crime. And deserve to be met with a heavy sanction.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2014 A8

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