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OPINION: Should British Columbians with criminal records be allowed to run for office?

Province says ‘yes’ – with some exceptions – while UBCM has twice asked government to crack down
Chilliwack Law Courts.

“Can someone run for city council if they have a criminal record? Especially if it is recent?”

That, paraphrased somewhat, is what someone asked me several weeks ago regarding a candidate running in a Lower Mainland jurisdiction.

The simple answer is, “Yes.”

A criminal record, no matter how recent or how dated, is not a disqualifying factor to run for elected office anywhere in Canada, with some exceptions for serious offences.

But that doesn’t mean some people don’t think this should change. Back in 2018, Pitt Meadows city council brought a resolution to the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention proposing changes that would require politicians convicted of serious crimes to be removed from office.

The issue came to the forefront in that community a year earlier when it was revealed that a city councillor for Pitt Meadows, David Murray, was convicted of sexually assaulting a teen in 1992. Council was left with no way to force him out, although he eventually left on his own accord.

But a man who wanted to run for council in Pitt Meadows in 2018 was worried the move could stop him because of his history, something he had moved past.

READ MORE: Don’t let criminal record stop council candidates: Pitt Meadows man

While UBCM endorsed the resolution in 2018, the province responded with an explanation that a person convicted of and in the middle of serving a sentence for an indictable offence (the most serious of crimes) is already prevented from holding office. Summary convictions do not cause disqualification, and if your sentence is over, similarly you are OK.

“This is a sensitive issue, triggering complex policy, legal, and practical questions.”

Then in 2020, Maple Ridge brought a resolution to UBCM to ask for criminal record checks for local government elected officials. This would have been a much lower bar than the 2018 resolution.

The preamble to the resolution suggested that because elected officials are expected to be open, transparent and accountable, and there is no requirement for criminal record checks “despite being privy to highly sensitive information and they are “allowed to participate in activities that other employers would require criminal record checks for, such as volunteering,” therefore criminal record checks should be part of nomination documents.

The provincial response? The campaign period is when residents have the opportunity for transparent civic engagement.

“The requested amendment would involve not just adding a process requirement but actually changing the nature of qualifications for office as such, it would be a substantive policy change requiring much deeper consideration of implications, as well as consultations with all affected,” the provincial government responded. “Once elected, officials are required to make an oath or solemn affirmation of office and they are required to conduct themselves ethically while carrying out their responsibilities and to follow the legislated duty to respect confidentiality.

“Currently, the Province is not considering changes to the required nomination documents.”

That was 2020. As of now in 2022, nothing is set to change.

I asked the Ministry of Municipal Affairs to articulate the answer the question at the first line of this column.

”The grounds upon which a person may be deemed ineligible to seek elected office are narrow in scope and do not include past criminal convictions,” a spokesperson wrote. “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all Canadian citizens the right to be involved in the election of their governments. It gives them the right to vote in federal, provincial or territorial elections, along with the right to seek public office themselves.

“Through recent legislative changes, a person who holds local elected office who is charged with a criminal offence will be placed on a leave of absence until their charges have been resolved. While on a leave of absence, an official still holds their seat but may not exercise any power or carry out any duty until their leave of absence ends. If convicted of an indictable offence while in office, the official will be disqualified, and their seat will become vacant.”

Any criminal convictions – even criminal charges – are public information in B.C. and anyone can look up anyone else on the public database at Court Services Online.

Here if anyone does a search under “Traffic/Criminal” they will see any criminal charges any individual faces or faced in the past in provincial court in B.C., and any traffic offences they disputed.

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