Controversial legislation in New Brunswick that has been called a snitch line against poor and racialized peoples by critics has been amended to include the reporting of illegal cannabis use and protecting the anonymity of those who file a complaint.
The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) Act was put into operation in New Brunswick in 2010 to allow residents of an area to confidentially report a property that they believe to be involved in designated activities including illegal drug use, sexual abuse, illegal firearm possession, organized crime, unlawful alcohol consumption, and “prostitution.”
Minister of Justice and Public Safety Minister Ted Flemming recently fielded questions about the amendments from members of the Standing Committee on Economic Policy. On February 1, the amendments passed the committee stage despite efforts from Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau to demand evidence for the need for such legislation in the first place.
Arseneau was first informed that there was no information available and then was accused of “posturing” simply because he was not willing to vote on legislation that he did not know was effective. Flemming also kept referring in this meeting to the accused as “criminals,” even though this is civil and not criminal legislation, so they are not charged with a crime. This shows how the Act allows those in power to make assumptions about the accused without proof, which violates the presumption of innocence inherent in our law. When civil legislation violates our rights, should we not question it?
This Act is an overreach of government authority that attempts to circumvent the criminal justice system and will disproportionately affect those in poverty, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, women, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people. Instead of resorting to legislation like this, an upstream approach should be taken to address the underlying issues that lead to criminalization. This includes addressing the social determinants of health, such as housing, poverty, job security, food security, healthcare access, income, and work-life conditions.
First, no education is provided to the public on how to accurately spot these illegal activities, which may result in inaccurate public reporting of illegal activities.
The Act’s classification of certain activities as illegal is also problematic. For example, sex work is not illegal. It is illegal to pay for sex, but sex work itself is decriminalized. The amendments to this Act present a real danger to sex workers who are already at increased risk of persecution. Further, the hidden nature of sex work presents a significant safety risk to workers who are required to meet with clients in secretive, and often unsafe, environments. This is likely to intensify with changes to the SCAN Act.
The addition of illegal cannabis use and distribution to the legislation is also concerning. How is one able to distinguish the use of illegal versus legal cannabis? How would one know where the user purchased their cannabis?
This also affects racialized people significantly. Studies have shown, such as one from the University of Wisconsin in 2001, that people are more likely to report their neighbours who are people of colour to law enforcement than their white neighbours. This will add further discrimination to populations that already experience this in their lives, and potentially to a dangerous extent. Racialized people are also more likely in Canada to be in poverty than non-racialized people, further making them a target of this legislation.
Putting the housing of someone in poverty in jeopardy by circumventing the criminal justice system is abhorrent and demonstrates the continuing inequities in our society that our government facilitates. Further compromising the housing and financial stability of people made marginalized in our society through criminal sanctions and shutting down properties will not stop crime; it will only continue the cycle of poverty and put these already vulnerable people in more precarious situations.
Stereotypes, often racial, gender, or class-based, influence people’s perception of crime in an area, which discounts the accuracy and legitimacy of potential claims being made to the SCAN unit. Further, they can lead to baseless or biased accusations of criminal activity. These accusations can have devastating and long-lasting effects on the lives of those accused, even if they do not lead to a criminal investigation. It is incomprehensible that we would jeopardize someone’s well-being based on an accusation from a community member.
The damaging impacts of public-perceived criminality were seen in a recent CBC report where people in the province are sometimes evicted before their SCAN investigations are brought before the court because landlords were informed of the supposedly criminal activities. In a province that is in the midst of a serious housing affordability crisis that disproportionately affects low-income individuals, the proposed changes to SCAN will further fuel this crisis. There have also been cases of judges determining that SCAN investigations have been inadequate as the investigators did not speak to the people accused.
All New Brunswickers should keep an eye on legislation like this that attempts to “crack down” on crime. This legislation does nothing to address the root causes of crime and criminalization and has the potential to jeopardize housing based on potentially unfounded, discriminatory accusations. Our government should not be given carte blanche to spend tax dollars on ineffective crime mitigation techniques. This money should instead be invested in progressive policies that address issues such as poverty that lead to criminalization. Investment in safe, affordable housing, physical and mental healthcare, and a living wage would benefit all communities, not just the privileged who are uncomfortable with their marginalized neighbours.
Katie Herrington is the editor-in-chief of The Baron, the student newspaper at the University of New Brunswick Saint John campus.