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John Holtby

The Case Of Valentine Shortis: A True Story Of Crime And Politics In Canada, Martin L. Friedland, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 324 p.

Many of the books reviewed in these pages are of interest to parliamentarians, but often it is unlikely that MPs will be able to find time to read them. The busy politician is swamped with paper, and reading time is at a premium, so the recommendation to pick up a copy of The Case of Valentine Shortis is not made lightly. The vote on capital punishment makes the subject topical, and Valentine Shortis is an entertaining read. It also raises fundamental questions which deserve an answer from all MPs and Senators who have to decide on the life and death question. Martin Friedland tells a true story of crime, the legal system, old style politics, and genuine mystery.

In 1895 Valentine Shortis was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. The cabinet of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell considered commutation but on two occasions their votes resulted in a tie. The Crown was without the advice of Ministers! The hot potato passed directly to Lord Aberdeen the Governor General who, it is suggested, was strongly influenced by the advice of his wife. Aberdeen ordered the death sentence commuted "to life imprisonment for life as a criminal lunatic, or otherwise as may be found most fitting". A political whirlwind had been set loose.

Only ten years earlier Louis Riel had been hanged after a similar plea. Earlier in the year of Shortis' trial, Amedée Chatelle was hanged, again after an unsuccessful petition for commutation. Was there one sentence for French-Canadians like Riel and Chatelle and another for an Irishman like Shortis? Why did the wife of the Governor General display such an intense interest in the case? Why did the Irish Catholic John Costigan, Minister of Fisheries, call on the Governor General?

Capital punishment cases are ultimately resolved politically. Politicians are lobbied. In some cases there are attempts at bribery. Political alliances are strained, sometimes destroyed. All of this happened in the Shortis case. The Cabinet deliberated for days on end. The Shortis case was debated in the House of Commons, and became an election issue, mixed in as it was with the racial and religious disputes of the Manitoba School election of 1896. The case touches many of the questions presently being debated in Canada. The interpretation of the law by the politicians and then by the Courts; the problem of equal justice for rich and poor; the attitude of the state towards convicted persons and questions of rehabilitation.

After imprisonment for over forty-two years Valentine Shortis was released from prison in 1937, "a stranger in a strange land". He was permitted to join the militia, and by all accounts led a satisfactory life. But his release was again a political issue. He died in Toronto in 1941. Although buried in an unmarked grave, he left a significant mark in Canadian political, legal and penal life. The case involved five Prime Ministers, from Bowell to King, and other public figures whose careers spanned over 150 years, ending with Hon. J. C. McRuer.

Writes Friedland, "Justice may in theory be blind, but in practice she has altogether too human a perspective. The result of the trial, the commutation, the ... release, may all have been influenced by the slip of a draughtsman's pen in preparing the criminal code, ...the reaction of the press, the cry of popular opinion, the vulnerability of the government, a mother's tears, a father's wealth, the continuing interest of Lady Aberdeen and her friendship with prominent politicians and much more."

For those Members of the House of Commons who may have the opportunity to draft a capital punishment bill in committee, for those who will vote on that bill, The Case of Valentine Shortis is an important and entertaining book. It should be on the "must read list" for every MP, Senator, and staffer on the Hill.

John Holtby, Ottawa, Ontario


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 10 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-03-03