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Deep-six’ing criminal records

MONTREAL, Que. - Canadians with criminal records are not allowed in the United States unless they have temporary waivers which are increasingly difficult to obtain in post-9/11 America. A more permane...

MONTREAL, Que. – Canadians with criminal records are not allowed in the United States unless they have temporary waivers which are increasingly difficult to obtain in post-9/11 America. A more permanent solution are pardons which, effectively, makes criminal records disappear. In September 2002 the National Pardon Centre (NPC) opened in Montreal, the first such centre in Canada to offer bilingual walk-in services for people looking to obtain pardons and rejoin the ranks of the unmarked.

The NPC was founded by Nicole Lvesque, a criminologist and NPC program director, with the help of private seed money; the NPC is non-profit and operates without government assistance. Although other agencies in Canada offer help in applying for pardons, Lvesque says, “There was a big lack of service in Quebec. There was no-one (with whom) to go over the counseling and support.”

Not only does the NPC fill a void for those within striking distance of downtown Montreal, anyone in the country, French or English, can call 514-842-2411, write to 2000 Peel Street, Suite 670, Montreal, H3A 2W5 or visit

Applying for a pardon is a fairly mechanical exercise – no pleading before judges and no lawyers, but the application requires information from several sources. “Eighty per cent of the pardon applications that are sent in to the National Parole Board (NPB) are incorrect and 95 per cent of the people who start the application on their own come in for assistance,” Lvesque says.

For someone wishing to get a pardon on the first try, the flat fee is a bargain. There are two processing routes – the year-and-a-half route costs $550; the two-year route costs $375. The fee, says communications director Michael Ashby, “includes all taxes and government fees associated with doing a pardon.” The average processing time at the NPB has risen from six months in 1997 to 20 months in 2002, thanks to staff cuts and delays in implementing streamlining technologies.

The NPC also processes applications for waivers, but they are only good for six months. They allow those with records into the U.S., and where there was no conviction, the fingerprints and mug shots taken after an arrest, can be destroyed.

All an applicant has to give the NPC is a set of fingerprints, which is a 10-minute, $25 exercise at a private fingerprinting company and the NPC counselors do the rest: certifying the fingerprints with the RCMP, ordering court records and determining eligibility for a pardon, finding out what records exist at the local police station where the charges were laid, getting court information, and on and on.

The Pardon Program was created in 1971 and since then the NPB has granted 276,956 pardons; only two per cent of pardon applications have been denied since 1992.

The basic requirements for getting pardons are that applicants must have completed their jail terms, paid their fines or done their community service, and be crime-free for three years in the case of summary offences and five years in the case of indictable offences. For those who think that pardons hide horrid lives of crime, it is worth noting that the NPB only revokes about three per cent of pardons, which happens if someone with a pardon is convicted of a new crime.

Within Canadian borders, a history of criminal activity creates barriers, for example to job advancement, volunteer work, child custody and adoption, the ability to be bonded and personal credibility. Internationally, says Ashby, “Truckers are one of the obvious groups where criminal records affect their employment.”

A criminal record never disappears, but once a pardon is granted, explains Ashby, “all the information pertaining to the conviction is gathered together and sealed and no one can get access to that without permission of the Solicitor General of Canada.” After a pardon is granted or issued, fingerprint records are withdrawn from the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC); a search will not turn up a criminal record or the existence of a pardon.

“If you get typed in at the border and you have an RCMP fingerprint number, you will not be allowed entry into the U.S.,” says Ashby. In fact, even admitting to an arrest where there was no conviction, especially for drugs, can bar you from entry into the U.S. “If they have downloaded your information (from CPIC, to which the Federal Bureau of Investigation has access) into their system it will never come out,” Ashby adds.

“Worse,” says Ashby, “the Americans do not recognize Canadian pardons. If you go to the border and admit you have a pardon, they will put your information into their database and it will be there forever.”

Ashby advises anyone who plans to apply for a pardon to stay well away from the border until the pardon is granted, because if you get in the U.S. system, your pardon will be worthless in their eyes.

So you finally receive your pardon, called your Mum at the number tattooed on your arm, get a great job and are one day questioned by a U.S. border guard. Are you required by law to tell him or anyone else about your pardon? The NPB, some of our RCMP and police officers and the U.S. say you must. Ashby counsels, “if you say no, there is no way they will ever find out, so make your own decision.”

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