In what at least one lawyer is calling a “highly significant case,” a BC Supreme Court judge reduced the sentence submitted by Crown and defence lawyers for a First Nations man accused of arson.
“I wouldn’t call it a watershed case but I think it will be a highly significant case. It will be referred to in the future,” said Glenn Verdurmen, defence counsel for the accused.
In BC Supreme Court in Kamloops on Aug. 26, Mr. Justice Leonard Marchand read a lengthy decision prior to sentencing Kenneth Robert LaForge, 40, on charges in connection with starting the fire that destroyed the 7-Eleven convenience store in Salmon Arm on Aug. 24, 2018.
Verdurmen and Crown counsel Danika Heighes had agreed upon what they considered to be an appropriate sentence and made a joint submission.
Justice Marchand said although the counsel involved were competent and caring, he felt the Gladue factors had to be addressed. Gladue principles require judges to consider an Aboriginal person’s background including the history of colonialism, residential schools and how that history continues to translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes, higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide, and higher levels of incarceration.
LaForge was initially charged with arson damaging property, arson in relation to inhabited property and mischief under $5,000. The middle charge was stayed because LaForge’s intent was not to harm anyone.
Verdurmen said LaForge was suffering from mental health issues at the time and believed CSIS was electronically monitoring him. The fire was meant to be a signal for help.
Crown and defence had agreed upon a sentence of time served, which would be the equivalent of 27 months.
Justice Marchand reduced that to 18 months, which won’t affect LaForge specifically as his time has already been served. His record, however, will show the reduced sentence. Where the sentence will make a difference is in the future when judges are considering precedent, Verdurmen said, as past sentences affect their current decisions.
LaForge will also be on probation for three years and will have a firearms prohibition for 10 years. He will pay restitution of $290.
Verdurmen said Justice Marchand noted there needed to be a greater emphasis on the over-incarceration aspects of First Nations people and how it all got that way. He pointed out that LaForge’s father was part of the Sixties Scoop, the Canadian practice from the 1950s to the 1980s of taking First Nations children from their families and placing them in foster homes.
In prior testimony, the court heard about LaForge’s tumultuous upbringing and how he was bullied at school for being First Nations, at the same time as having no connection to the culture.
“It was a strong decision about how Aboriginal sentencing should go… I think this decision is probably going to be talked about in the legal community and justice community for some time,” Verdurmen said. “I can’t see that anyone would be unhappy with this. I think it is annunciating how specific groups are treated in the justice system.”