O Canada: Pay Heed to Tough-on-Crime Policies, Not the National Anthem!

Days after the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, mentioned in his Throne Speech (yes, in Canada that is what it is called) that his government would ask Parliament to potentially change the English version of the national anthem to be gender-neutral–specifically the “all thy sons command” line– this idea was scuttled due to overwhelming backlash.

Shelving the obvious WTF question, as Harper is no beacon of Canadian gender equity, I was overwhelmed by the frenzy produced by the mere possibility of a gender-neutral anthem–especially as Harper’s dramatic overhaul of Canada’s criminal justice system is being ushered in with no visible resistance.

The bastion of left analysis, The Economist, writes that despite a 30-year low in Canadian crime rates, Harper’s government has introduced a host of reforms that eerily mirror failed U.S. criminal justice policies. Being “tough on crime,” it appears, can still be a winner in the polls, and a full one-third of the bills introduced by Harper’s government last year were tough-on-crime measures, including mandatory minimum sentencing, further criminalizing drugs and eliminating structures that would decrease time between arrest and trial.

What is the legacy of tough-on-crime policies in the U.S.? The world’s largest prison population. In the 1990s, the U.S. built a prison every 15 days. And massive investments in a carceral state created cellblocks, not classrooms, and “million-dollar blocks”–impoverished neighborhoods with so many residents in prison that the total cost of their incarceration exceeds $1 million. This year, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been publicly hand-wringing about the reality that his state spent more on corrections than on higher education.

Tough-on-crime measures also disproportionately impact communities of color, women and those already locked out of other public institutions. And of course, the sentence is not over when released from prison.

As a Canadian citizen who has worked for over a decade in the belly of the tough-on-crime era in the U.S., I am angered at these changes. Being “tough on crime” does not make our communities any stronger or safer. Rather, these punitive and expensive policies translate into more women in prison, more kids without parents and less resources for the kinds of things we know our communities need: music in schools, green things on our tables and nurses in our hospitals.

While the U.S. is reeling from decades of investment in tough-on-crime policies, Canada appears eager to sign up.

So at this moment I really don’t give a giant inflatable beaver about “all thy sons command” if it means that all of our daughters are going to be locked up or locked out.

Come on Canadians: Don’t fall for the old bait-and-switch trick in the middle of an economic downtown. “Tough on crime” consigns too many of our sisters and brothers to civil and physical death . We need more than a gender-neutral national anthem in response.

Photo from Flickr user abardwell under Creative Commons 2.0.