Alberta’s justice minister is calling on the federal government to make changes to the Criminal Code to allow people to carry pepper spray for self-defence.
In a letter to the federal justice and public safety ministers, Justice Minister and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu suggests “consideration be given to allowing individuals, including vulnerable persons, to carry capsaicin spray, commonly known as pepper spray, for self-defence.”
“As you are aware, pepper spray is currently a prohibited weapon,” Madu wrote.
The call for change stems from Madu’s “profound concerns” about recent crimes that appear to be motivated by hate and racism. Edmonton has seen a series of what police have described as hate-motivated attacks in recent months.
Madu said the provincial government wholeheartedly supports the notion of permitting Albertans to defend themselves in circumstances where they are in serious risk of imminent danger.
“Pepper spray would again be helpful in allowing personal defence when absolutely needed,” he wrote.
Madu is also calling on the federal government to impose mandatory minimum sentences for people found guilty of hate-motivated crimes.
“It is sadly ironic that a vulnerable person carrying pepper spray for self-defence could quite possibly receive a longer sentence than her attacker,” he said in his letter.
“Albertans need to know that when justice is brought upon those found responsible for a hate-motivated crime, perpetrators will be truly punished without the leniency that has been seen of late.”
Madu pointed to a case in Edmonton in June, where a man received a seven-month sentence for three separate hate-motivated assaults. Madu said with the time the man had already served, he would be released from custody 35 days later.
“This is clearly unacceptable and demonstrates a pattern of leniency in our criminal system when it comes to hate-motivated sentencing,” Madu said.
“I urge you to establish strong mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of a racist, hate and bias-motivated assault.”
The president of the Edmonton Police Association said while he understands the minister’s intent, he foresees significant issues if OC spray is made legal.
“I can foresee members of the public, including our own police members, being sprayed on a regular basis,” Michael Elliott said in a statement.
“There will be issues with cross contamination as OC will affect more than just the person intended. You have the potential to affect groups of individuals as OC is airborne.
“The effect of OC can last over 24 hours, some with extreme severity and all those affected will require immediate medical assistance from EMS, who are currently at a maximum capacity for responding to current events.”
Elliott said when police use the spray, a use of force review must be conducted by a supervisor to ensure the use was reasonable and lawful.
“Who will review the actions of an individual(s)? The request to make OC legal is ill advised and unwarranted,” he said.
Irfan Chaudhry, a hate crime researcher and director of MacEwan University’s office of human rights, diversity and equity, said the request around pepper spray is ill-conceived and not very practical.
“Based on my knowledge in this area, based on the context I know for this province in the work I’ve been doing around addressing hate crime and supporting victims of hate crime, never once has, ‘Give us pepper spray’ been even Top 10 of what anyone has asked for,” he said.
“It’s not a solution at all, in my opinion. It doesn’t get at the root cause of what’s leading to hate-motivated violence in our province.”
Chaudhry, who is also part of the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee, suggests long-term, proactive opportunities to fund anti-racism projects aimed at knowledge, awareness and inclusion may be more successful.
“Advocating at various levels of government, I think is always important. I just don’t think the appropriate consultation was likely done to get a sense of what communities really want. I only say that with the context of, I know of other political leaders that are also drafting similar letters that have consulted quite a lot with different stakeholders in their cities to generate a response that I think is more applicable to what people are looking for.”
When it comes to the mandatory minimum sentence suggestion, Chaudhry said there is some traction to the idea but added a designated hate crime category in the Criminal Code would also be a good place to start.
Sadique Pathan, the outreach imam at Edmonton’s Al Rashid Mosque, said while it’s important attention is being paid to these types of crimes, it’s the systemic issues that need to be addressed.
“There might be that knee-jerk reaction that we want to arm people to defend themselves, however, this is, in my view, something that is quite problematic. When we start thinking that the victims themselves need to defend themselves, when does it stop?” he questioned.
“I do believe that this approach of arming is not something that is a long-term solution to something that is far more deep-rooted and deep-seeded. We are looking at addressing misogyny. I mean, let’s call it for what it is. It’s sort of cloaked with Islamophobia, which is real as well.
“This is hate towards the most vulnerable. Let us address these issues, let us get to the root of these causes.”
The UCP government has announced a number of initiatives it hopes will cut down these types of crimes, including the Alberta Security Infrastructure Program. It will provide grants to religious and ethnic organizations that are at risk of being targeted by hate-inspired violence or vandalism.
Grant applications will open in the fall. The province said a total of $500,000 will be available this year. Applicants will be eligible for up to $10,000 to assist with security assessments and training, as well as $90,000 for the purchase and installation of security infrastructure such as alarms, gates, motion detectors and security systems.
Madu said the Alberta government is also setting up a community liaison on hate crimes to provide the province with perspectives and expertise on how to address racist, hate and bias-motivated crime.
A new hate crimes coordination unit is also being set up to improve hate crime prevention.
Madu said it’s “ridiculous criticism” to say the proposed changes won’t work as intended.
“There is never anything wrong with empowering your citizens to protect themselves from those who seek to harm them.”
He added that when it comes to solving and preventing crime, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
“At the end of the day, we must also have an effective system that holds criminals to account.”
Global News has reached out to the federal justice and public safety ministries for comment on the story.