Why the Minassian verdict won’t answer one key question
Kirsten Mercer explains how a public inquiry can be an effective forum for a broad discussion of violence prevention
The Toronto Star spoke to Kirsten Mercer about the important question that won’t be answered by the verdict in the criminal case against Alek Minassian. In April 2018, Minassian deliberately drove his van onto a busy sidewalk, killing 10 pedestrians and injuring 16.
As Kirsten noted, the verdict in any criminal case will not answer the question of whether the crime, in this case the violent attack targeting women, could have been prevented and how.
“The focus of criminal proceedings is really very much about the legal responsibility of a particular act that happened in the past,” said Kirsten Mercer, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners who led the development of Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan. “It’s not really about prevention, it’s not about all the other things that might have gone wrong.”
The Star notes that “the most likely way prevention might be discussed in a public proceeding following Minassian’s criminal trial would be an inquest.” Kirsten notes that a public inquiry may be more effective in situations where broader social issues and a diversity of perspectives need to be examined:
An inquest can examine a number of deaths that occur in similar circumstances, but they are limited to the specific facts of those cases, said Mercer, not commenting specifically on the Minassian case. Where there are pervasive social issues to be examined that go beyond that narrow focus, other options include a government-ordered public inquiry.
Calling a public inquiry — which is expensive and can take a long time — is dependant on political will, Mercer said, and the recommendations produced are not binding. And while one on hand they can produce compelling reasons to change policies — and sometimes do — the reports might also simply sit on a shelf.
“The work that comes after is just as important as anything else,” she said.
The value of a public inquiry is that it can bring in a broader diversity in perspectives from communities, front-line workers and experts, she said, and the scope can be as wide or narrow as needed.
“We know that crimes have context. If all we ever do is focus on the thing that actually happened, the one person, and look away from all of the other social forces driving conduct then it’s going to be whack-a-mole. We are only ever going to be dealing with problems as they manifest,” she said.