Crime and punishment... not always justice 

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When I moved to Canada, I woke up in Montréal. Coming from the mountains and deserts and small towns and cities of the American southwest, Montréal cast Canada in an extremely foreign light. While a large contingent of English-speaking Montréalers clung on to their sense of place, that place was quickly eroding... and rightly so.

With notable exceptions, the lingua franca of Montréal was the soft patois French and Frenglish unique to Québec and particularly unique to Montréal. With the first referendum on sovereignty less than a year away, tensions between the two solitudes were at a fever pitch, politically. It was a time when the English, Montréal Gazette's brilliantly talented political cartoonist, Aislin, captured the zeitgeist poignantly with his single-panel drawing of understated Anglo-Montréalers passing a billboard shouting, "Speak French English Dogs!"

It all seemed so different. Yet, so similar. The parallels between the Anglo-Chicano colonial subjugation of the southwest were striking. But with the Parti Québécois in ascension, the cultural revolution was far further advanced in tipping the balance toward the historically subjugated.

Notwithstanding my inability to speak French without being either laughed at or insulted, usually both, I threw myself into this foreign culture. I frequented taverns — men only by right of cultural passage, not law — brasseries, and galleries. I sometimes feigned a thick, southern drawl to avoid disapproval and condemnation. I listened without understanding. And by some magic of osmosis, gained insight into the cultural touchstones of Québec.

Food seemed to be both a bridge between the two solitudes and a proud part of French Québec culture. The simple fare of the vanishing habitants, tourtière and pea soup for example, were always featured on tavern menus. Steamies, that Montréal variation on the hot dog, were as "of-the-place" as Bill 101, the French language mandate.

But on a level approaching religion was exalted maple syrup. Grounded in the northern reaches of the sugar maple's reach and ubiquitous throughout the province, maple syrup was revered, cosseted, celebrated and woven deeply into the fabric of Québec culture. Its immediately identifiable leaf had pride of place on Canada's flag and its arrival in the first dawning of spring was cause for celebration.

Suave urbanites with no more attachment to the land than a cheap Cornelius Krieghoff print bundled up their children and trundled into the countryside to the nearest cabane à sucre to twist the importance of the maple syrup run into their DNA. In a land with epic winters, maple syrup was the vanguard of harvests to come.

So I guess it was understandable last week when Superior Court Justice Raymond Pronovost sentenced Richard Vallieres to eight years in prison, confiscated $606,500 from him and fined him another $9.4 million — which he'll have to pay back over a 10-year period or have his sentence increased by six additional years — for his part in the Great Maple Syrup Heist.

In August 2011, M. Vallieres and two associates stole $18 million worth of maple syrup from a warehouse, cleverly, though not cleverly enough, draining barrels of the sweet stuff and filling the barrels with water. It took the combined investigative power of the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, the Sûréte du Québec and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies to solve the GMSH and bring M. Vallieres to justice.

His two partners in crime were sentenced to two years, less a day, although one of them is also under threat of increased time in prison if he fails to pay back a substantial sticky sum of money.

Ironically, days after justice was meted out to M. Vallieres, the B.C. Supreme Court sentenced Samuel Alec to eight years and four months in prison for killing three people in British Columbia and banned him from wielding his weapon of choice — a motor vehicle — for 15 years after he gets out.

I wonder how much more time he would have had to serve if his trunk had been full of maple syrup?

Understandably, the sentence failed to bring, in the euphemism of grief, closure to many people in Tiny Town, friends and colleagues of both Kelly Blunden and Ross Chafe, the cyclists a drunken Mr. Alec mowed down two years ago while they biked the Duffey Lake Road on a peaceful Sunday morning. I don't know whether his sentence brought any comfort to the family of Paul Pierre, Mr. Alec's friend and passenger in the car but I doubt seriously that any sentence could comfort anyone even remotely involved in this tragedy.

That is the failing of the justice system — criminal or civil.

In opening and closing arguments, lawyers often remind jurors — rarely judges — that as imperfect and inadequate as it is, criminal sentences or civil damages are the only tools at hand to redress wrongs. Nothing within the power of the justice system is capable of undoing the damage done, bringing back the dead, restoring the injured, cheated, defrauded to the place they were before the wrong was done.

So it's time assessed or damages awarded that have to stand in as surrogates for compensation for harm done.

Is eight years — two already served — enough? Do three lives in B.C. equate somehow to $18 million worth of maple syrup in Quebec? Is that a grotesque question to ask? Insult to injury?

Notwithstanding eight years is a harsh sentence for a B.C. court to assess for three counts of impaired driving causing death, I can't believe it adequately serves the cause of justice. Mr. Alec wasn't a first-offender, as was argued in the case of Marco Muzzo who was sentenced to a record-setting 10 years for killing four people while driving drunk in Toronto a couple of years ago. Mr. Alec has a rich history of impaired driving convictions and was, at the time, without a driver's licence as a result of his most recent conviction.

This wasn't an unforeseeable consequence. Mr. Alec had been engaged in a lengthy binge of drinking after a funeral in Mt. Currie. People had pleaded with him not to drive home. He didn't care. What happened next was wilful, criminal, deadly and inevitable.

That he escaped without a "habitual offender" enhancement baffles me. That we might have to fear meeting him on the wrong side of the road in six years — time off for "good" behaviour and a meaningless prohibition on driving... which he was already under at the time he killed three people — is chilling. That he professed sorrow over his actions is meaningless.

Justice was not served. I don't know why. But it seems like a bad movie that reruns far too often. Apology not accepted, Mr. Alec.

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