OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to review the sentencing of a man who went on a deadly shooting spree at a Quebec City mosque.
The examination of Alexandre Bissonnette's case is expected to determine the constitutionality of a key provision on parole eligibility in multiple-murder cases.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six charges of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder in the January 2017 assault just after evening prayers.
In 2019, Bissonnette successfully challenged a 2011 law that allowed a court, in the event of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and parole ineligibility periods of 25 years to be served consecutively for each murder.
A judge declared the provision unconstitutional and instead said Bissonnette must wait 40 years before applying for parole.
Quebec's Court of Appeal agreed that the sentencing provision violated Charter of Rights guarantees of life, liberty and security of the person, as well as freedom from cruel or unusual punishment.
"Parliament’s response to the problem identified is so extreme as to be disproportionate to any legitimate government interest," the Appeal Court said.
"The judge was therefore right to conclude that the scope of the provision is clearly broader than necessary to achieve the objectives of denunciation and protection of the public."
The Appeal Court, however, said the judge erred in making the ineligibility period 40 years.
It said the court must revert to the law as it stood before 2011, meaning the parole ineligibility periods are to be served concurrently, resulting in a total waiting period of 25 years in Bissonnette's case.
The Court of Appeal noted there is no guarantee the Parole Board will grant Bissonnette parole in 25 years.
"This will depend on the circumstances at the time, including the appellant's level of dangerousness, his potential for rehabilitation and the manner in which his personality has evolved," the court said.
"Furthermore, as with any parole, if it is granted, it will include the necessary conditions for adequately ensuring the security of the public, failing which it will not be granted."
The ruling prompted the Crown and the Quebec attorney general to ask the Supreme Court for a hearing, saying it would clear up uncertainty over the constitutional questions.
The Crown added that, should the 2011 provision be found constitutional, a parole ineligibility period of 50 years would be fair and appropriate.
In his submission to the top court, Bissonnette said the Court of Appeal had correctly applied the law to the constitutional issue.
The Supreme Court provided no reasons Thursday for agreeing to hear the case, and no date for the proceeding has yet been scheduled.
However, the top court said the Quebec attorney general could file arguments not exceeding 40 pages on the constitutional questions and the Crown could make a submission of not more than 20 pages on "the determination of a just and appropriate ineligibility period" for parole. In turn, Bissonnette will be permitted to file arguments in response to the Crown.
In a statement, two Conservative MPs said they expected the federal government to "vigorously defend" the parole provision that was struck down.
"Canada's worst murderers must remain locked behind bars," said justice critic Rob Moore and public services critic Pierre Paul-Hus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press