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Conservatives call on feds to see killer Bernardo returned to maximum-security prison

Bernardo's move was made public last week
Paul Bernardo sits in the back of a police cruiser as he leaves a hearing in St. Catharines, Ont., April 5, 1994. The lawyer for the families of Paul Bernardo's victims says the killer and serial rapist should be returned to his maximum-security prison and transparency be provided around what led to his transfer to a medium-security facility in the first place.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is calling on the federal government to use whatever tools it can to reverse a decision by the Correctional Service of Canada to transfer killer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security prison. 

Bernardo's move to a facility in Quebec was made public last week after the correctional service notified the lawyer representing the families of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, whom Bernardo kidnapped, tortured and murdered in the early 1990s.

The killer and serial rapist had been serving a life sentence at Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary near Kingston, Ont. 

Tim Danson, a lawyer for the victims' families, says it was unacceptable that the prison service refused to answer questions about the reason for Bernardo's move or details of his custody conditions, citing his privacy rights. 

Poilievre said it is "outrageous" that the prison system has moved the killer to a medium-security institution. 

"He should be in a maximum-security institution," he told reporters Monday.

"The government should review any powers it has to reverse this ridiculous decision. Mr. Bernardo is a monster and he belongs in maximum security."'

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in a statement that “Bernardo should rot in a maximum-security prison for the rest of his miserable existence. Full stop."

In a statement last Friday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Bernardo's transfer was "shocking and incomprehensible," adding that he planned to raise the issue with Anne Kelly, commissioner of the federal correctional service. 

Danson said he was pleased to see the minister's reaction.

"Now we need action," he told The Canadian Press on Sunday. "This is one of Canada's most notorious, sadistic, psychopathic killers."

"We need the public in masses, in millions, to be writing to the minister, to the commissioner of corrections, and to the members of Parliament, to express their outrage over this — that secrecy will not work. We want transparency."

Mendicino said in his statement he expects the correctional service to "take a victim-centred and trauma-informed approach in these cases."

The service, for its part, issued a statement offering no details about Bernardo's transfer but saying safety is its "paramount consideration" in all such decisions.

"While we cannot comment on the specifics of an offender’s case under the Privacy Act, we want to assure the public that this offender continues to be incarcerated in a secure institution, with appropriate security perimeters and controls in place," the statement read. 

It went on to note that Bernardo, who has been designated a dangerous offender, is serving an "indeterminate sentence" with no end date.

Danson said the French and Mahaffy families were shocked to hear of Bernardo's transfer, with the move bringing up decades of anguish and grief. 

"Then for me to have to tell them as their lawyer and their friend, 'I'm afraid I have no answers for you because of Bernardo's privacy rights,'" he said.

"Of course their response is the one that you would expect: What about the rights of Kristen? What about the rights of Leslie? What about their rights?"

"These are questions I can't answer other than just to agree with them and share in their despair." 

Bernardo's dangerous offender status makes the move all the more puzzling, Danson added as he questioned why Bernardo should reap any benefits of being in a medium-security facility with more lenient living conditions. 

"We need an open and transparent discussion and debate. These are major, major public institutions paid for by the taxpayers of Canada."

He suggested the correctional service's handling of the matter risks leading the public to feel suspicious of the entire system. 

"They want to do everything behind closed doors and secretly."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press