How we got here

A timeline of Canada’s National Sex Offender Registry. The concept was flawed from the beginning—and it’s only gotten worse

Father’s Day, 1988 — Joseph Fredericks, a paroled pedophile with a lengthy criminal record, confesses to police in Brampton, Ont., that he abducted, molested and murdered 11-year-old Christopher Stephenson. He personally leads detectives to the wooded area where he dumped the boy’s body. Fredericks pleads guilty to first-degree murder, and is later stabbed to death by a fellow inmate at Kingston Penitentiary.

January 1993 — A coroner’s inquest into Christopher’s case results in 71 sweeping recommendations. Number 44 urges the federal government to create an electronic registry of convicted, high-risk sex offenders that records current addresses, telephone numbers and other descriptive material. The coroner’s jury concluded that if a registry existed the day Christopher was kidnapped, police would have been able to generate an instant list of suspects living in the neighbourhood. Maybe those detectives would have knocked on Fredericks’ door while the boy was still alive.

1999 — Six years after the inquest, Ottawa is no closer to creating a national sex offender registry. But Ontario is. The Mike Harris government—with assistance from Christopher’s parents, Jim and Anna—begin crafting legislation for a provincial sex offender registry.

April 23, 2001 — “Christopher’s Law” is officially enacted, making Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to boast a sex offender registry. Anyone convicted of a designated offence—from child pornography to molestation—is automatically added to the system. They must check in with police every year and every time they move. Harris is so impressed with the database that he offers the software free of charge to his federal counterparts. Jean Chrétien’s Liberals don’t appear interested, so Harris shifts the offer to his fellow premiers. “We’ll provide whatever expertise and advice the other provinces require, both at a ministerial level and at the official level in legislation and the regulations as well as our software,” Harris promises.

September 11, 2001 — Federal Solicitor-General Lawrence MacAulay, under increasing pressure to beat the provinces to the punch, announces a $2-million plan to overhaul CPIC, the main police computer that contains everyone’s criminal record, and is available in all police cruisers across the country. Insisting that CPIC is “already a reliable and proven” sex offender registry, MacAulay says the upgrades will allow police to search for sex offenders based on location—but it won’t require those offenders to keep their contact information up to date. Provincial justice ministers are so unimpressed with the plan that they hold their own press conference later that morning. It was quickly overshadowed by the terrorist attacks unfolding in New York and Washington.

Fall 2001 — Terrorism is at the top of the federal agenda, but a few weeks after 9/11, MacAulay agrees to meet Jim and Anna Stephenson, who are still lobbying hard for a national sex offender registry. “There was some shouting and screaming, but he gave us an hour and a half of his time,” Jim recalls. “However, he stated categorically that his government was opposed to a sex offender registry and he would have no part of it.” The pressure didn’t stop, though. It soon becomes clear that if the feds don’t build a nationwide registry, the provinces will create their own.

February 13, 2002 — At a meeting of provincial and federal justice officials in Moncton, N.B., MacAulay shocks the crowd with an unexpected announcement: the feds have decided to build a national sex offender registry after all.

December 11, 2002 — Bill C-23 is tabled in the House. Wayne Easter, now the Solicitor-General, says “the registry will become another tool in our toolbox for protecting Canadians, particularly our children, from sexual predators.” The feds have no intention of copying Ontario’s program. Ottawa wants to create a completely distinct registry—in more ways than one.

  • Unlike in Ontario, the national registry will not be mandatory. A prosecutor must ask a judge to order an offender to register (known as a Form 52 order) and the judge can refuse. The result? Since the law took effect, barely half of all convicted rapists, molesters and child pornographers have been added to the database.
  • A registered offender must inform police if he (or she) is leaving home for more than two weeks. Anything less than that—a seven-day trip to Thailand, for example—doesn’t need to be reported.
  • The database can only be used to solve a crime of a sexual nature, not prevent one. If a strange man is seen loitering around a playground, police cannot search the registry for a matching description. If a child is molested, then it’s OK. And even then, frontline detectives will not be allowed access the system themselves. They must phone the RCMP.
  • Like the Ontario version, the national registry will require offenders to check in every year and every time they move. But amazingly, the national database will not allow police to electronically record when an offender is scheduled to register. As a result, the RCMP will be forced to create separate, hard-copy tracking systems—a Rolodex, for example, or a wall calendar. In other words, the national registry will not be able to tell police the most basic fact: when is this offender due to register?

January 2004 — The national registry is still not a reality. The bill died in 2003 when Parliament prorogued, but was reintroduced a year later. The federal Justice Department wrote the legislation, seeking advice from the Federal/Provincial/Territorial High Risk Sex Offenders Working Group, which includes representatives from all provinces and territories. The Mounties feel shut out of the process. The RCMP’s Behavioural Sciences Branch has been tasked to build and maintain the registry, yet those same officers have little say in the actual legislation. “This was political, and for whatever reason, there wasn’t a whole lot of consultation with the police at the time,” says Glenn Woods, a retired RCMP superintendent who helped build the system.

December 15, 2004 — The Sex Offender Information Registration Act (SOIRA) becomes law (it was supposed to come into force on October 1, but the official unveiling had to be postponed by 10 weeks because the RCMP still wasn’t finished building the database). The new registry is not completely retroactive. Everyone listed on the Ontario registry, and anyone else currently serving a sentence for a sex crime, will be added to the list. But countless other known criminals whose sex crimes sentences have already expired—including notorious pedophile Peter Whitmore—will not be forced to register.

Winter 2005 — RCMP officers encounter another unforeseen hiccup. Most offenders ordered onto the registry are in jail and do not have to report until they are released. However, in a policy stance that defies logic, the Correctional Service of Canada refuses to tell registry staff when those offenders are set free. The information is available on CPIC, and another internal system known as InfoPol, but the legislation that created the registry strictly prohibits “data matching.” Which means the RCMP cannot connect the database to any other police computer. When the Mounties ask the federal corrections department to provide the information directly to them, they refuse. To this day, that is still the case.

May 4, 2005 — An offender in Alberta is convicted of failing to comply with the registry—the first-ever non-compliance conviction. He was fined $1,000.

Summer 2005 — The RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) develop an electronic interface in order to ensure the national registry and the provincial version can share information. That way, if a person in Ontario is listed on both registries, the OPP won’t have to type the information into both databases. The interface, which goes live in September 2005, is a disaster. Data for 4,765 offenders was extracted from the Ontario registry and sent to the national. Of those, 2,141files were accepted and entered, but another 55% “were rejected for various reasons.” As the RCMP later wrote, the interface was constantly “crippled” by technical glitches. Files were duplicated. Some were missing crucial information. In some cases, the OPP—unable to pinpoint an offence date for hundreds of offenders—decided to enter Jan. 1, 1911 instead.

November 2005 — The RCMP unit that oversees the national sex offender registry issues a quarterly report. It includes a list of “Current Challenges.”

  • Lack of Statistical Information — “Given the legislative restrictions prohibiting the storage of NSOR related data in other databases or the matching of data between the NSOR and other systems, the NSOR-D will have to be developed such that statistical reports can be produced as required.” In other words, if the Public Safety Minister wants an up-to-the-minute compliance rates, it would take a few weeks to cobble the information together.
  • Offender release dates — “Currently there is no process in place to obtain offender release dates for federal offenders. Without this information, it is not possible to properly monitor the compliance of these offenders.”
  • Support of prosecutors — “Not all Provincial/Territorial [attorneys-general] are requesting Form 52 SOIRA orders in all cases where an offender is convicted of a designated offence.”
  • Legislative shortcomings — “The SOIRA contains a number of provisions that create significant hurdles and limit the utility of the NSOR-D as an investigative tool.”

January 23, 2006 — Stephen Harper’s Conservatives win the federal election, campaigning on a platform that includes a vague promise to “register all convicted sex offenders.” A month later, Melissa Martineau, then the database manager, writes a report urging the Mounties to scrap the Ontario/national interface and concentrate on improving the registry’s technical capabilities.

“The RCMP stands to be embarrassed if the NSOR database continues to have only limited functionality,” she wrote. “With the current resources dedicated to the NSOR database, it is not possible to maintain the interface and further develop the database in a timely fashion…As the NSOR is a priority on the new Federal government’s agenda, it would be beneficial to the RCMP to develop the NSOR database to the point of full functionality and be ready for potential changes or enhancements.”
Insp. Art Crockett, the officer in charge of the registry at the time, writes his own briefing note to superiors, urging them to scrap the interface. “Although we state that the NSOR-D was implemented in 2004, there are those who would suggest that the Registry cannot be deemed as being rolled out as a completed system until the data can be collected, analyzed, searched and retrieved with logical and informative system generated reports. It was our intention to have many of these functions in operation by the end of the first year, however, this is not the case and much of the delay can be directly attributed to the work that has needed to go into the building of the NSOR/OSOR interface.”

He continues: “The RCMP is accountable to each of the Provinces and Territories for the development of this system. For some time now the Provincial representatives from outside Ontario have been expressing signs of displeasure on what appears to be a complete devotion to one Province at the expense of all others who are waiting in the cue for technical attention to issues they are facing.” The RCMP eventually pulls the plug on the interface.

April 2006 — The national registry centre issues another quarterly report, saying they are “approximately six months behind in our development schedule” because of problems with the interface. The list of “Current Challenges” remains the same as November 2005:

  • Lack of statistical information
  • No information sharing with the Correctional Service of Canada
  • Prosecutors are forgetting to ask judges to order offenders onto the registry

June 2006 — Jim Coflin, a former bureaucrat and now independent consultant, submits a report to the feds. He was hired by Ottawa to conduct an “implementation evaluation” of the registry. His report is not an assessment of the legislation itself, but a progress report of sorts. Still, his final report warns the government about a number of inherent problems with the registry:

  • “The Correctional Service of Canada does not provide sex offender registry centres with notice of the offender’s release, as CSC is of the opinion that neither SOIRA, nor any other legislation, gives the service the authority to do so.”
  • Because the legislation does not allow the RCMP to electronically record an offender’s next reporting date, the system “does not include any automated proactive functions such as flagging annual reporting dates…There are no procedures to provide local police with alerts about an offender’s reporting status as the Ontario Sex Offender Registry does for provincially registered offenders.” If the RCMP knows that a person is scheduled to check in next week, it’s not because the computer says so. They must keep track of that information somewhere else.
  • Frontline officers do not have direct access to the registry, and as a result, many cops consider it a useless tool. “The NSOR Section personnel concluded that there is a need to develop a communications strategy to better inform local police services about the system’s capacity to respond to investigative requests,” Coflin wrote. “They observed that local police may not be making requests as often as they might because of a mistaken understanding that the SOIRA criteria for such access to registered sex offender information are so restrictive as to be of little or [no] value to them.”
  • “A significant proportion of the respondents reported that, in hindsight, the process failed to effectively address operational issues either before the Bill was introduced to Parliament, or during the time between Royal Assent and proclamation.”

The Mounties are provided with a draft copy of Coflin’s report, and submit their own written rebuttal. It is blunt, to say the least. The RCMP is most disappointed that the report “is not an evaluation of the effectiveness of the legislation,” which they have considered flawed since the beginning.

“The largest impact on the implementation of SOIRA was the legislation itself,” the RCMP wrote. “The report repeatedly identifies a number of perceived shortcomings within the operationalization of the National Sex Offender Registry, including the lack of flagging or alerts to front-end users with respect to offender non-compliance. The lack of such administrative tools can only be explained by the restrictions placed upon the ability to collect and register required administrative information under the Act.”

Summer 2006 — As Coflin’s report makes the rounds in Ottawa, the justice department continues to work on another piece of legislation: Bill S-3. The law will ensure that Canadian soldiers court-martialled for sex crimes are added to the registry, but it will also include some administrative amendments meant to remedy some of the RCMP’s longstanding complaints. But as far as the Mounties are concerned, the proposed law falls woefully short.

In fact, the RCMP is so unimpressed with justice department bureaucrats that officers craft their own list of suggestions for the FPT High Risk Offenders Working Group. Obtained by Maclean’s, the document doesn’t mince words—and is a reality check for anyone who might still believe that the national sex offender registry is a high-tech success.

  • “There are a number of [electronic] fields required for the proper administration and effective investigative use of the registry that continue to be prohibited,” the document reads. For example, although the bill would allow police to record “date reported,” it still doesn’t allow for “next expected registration date.” Without that, the Mounties can’t build an Ontario-style flagging system. They also can’t, according to the bill, use the registry to store information about compliance checks. The RCMP must continue to store that information somewhere else.
  • The database doesn’t know if an offender is in jail. A person might be dead, but the computer doesn’t record that, either. It does include fields for addresses and telephone numbers. It just doesn’t include an “effective date” beside each one. “There is no way of knowing if an offender lived in a specific area during a specified period of time,” the Mounties wrote. “Given the purpose of SOIRA, to assist police in the investigation of crimes of a sexual nature by providing them with rapid access to certain information relating to convicted sex offenders, it is only reasonable that police have the information to determine which of numerous addresses recorded for the offender is their current place of residence.”
  • Bill S-3 will not allow the police to use the registry proactively. “The policing community is not requesting unfettered access to the National Sex Offender Registry, nor is the policing community asking to be able to access the registry for any suspected crime against a person,” the Mounties wrote. “The proposal put forth is to allow police to access the registry when they have reasonable grounds to believe that a sex offence is about to be committed. This would result in the police being able to access the registry in a few limited scenarios, such as a suspicious person loitering outside of a playground or school. The responding officer has reason to believe that the children at the playground are at risk and that a sex offence could potentially occur. Given the circumstances the police officer would access the registry to determine if anyone on the registry lives in the area of the school and matches the description provided.”
  • To its credit, Bill S-3 will approve the creation of two other electronic fields: “custody start date” and “release date.” But it doesn’t change the fact that federal prison officials refuse to share that information directly with the registry. “While S-3 does allow for the collection and registration of release dates, it does not provide a means for doing so,” the report reads. “In order to appropriately enforce SOIRA, the NSOR must have access to accurate release date information. In order for this to occur a change must be made to allow for data matching among the national sex offender registry and the justice systems that can provide such information, or authority must be given to Correctional Service of Canada to provide this information directly to the national sex offender registry.”
  • The RCMP wants all dangerous sex offenders to be added to the registry. While it is currently up to a judge to decide who is added and who isn’t, the Mounties propose that people convicted of the most serious offences be automatically listed on the system. “The process being proposed is one of automatic inclusion for certain offences, not all designated offences, with an appeal process accessible to offenders who feel that their inclusion is inappropriate. Automatic inclusion for more serious sex offences would help to ensure that the sex offenders posing the highest risk to the public do not fall through the cracks in terms of the registry. Increased inclusivity will have a positive impact on the effectiveness of the registry as an investigative tool. The tool can only be effective as it is complete.”
  • The 15-day rule needs to be changed, the memo says. As of now, a registered sex offender must tell police if he’s leaving home for more than two weeks—within 15 days after departure. In other words, an offender can leave for 15 days, then wait another 15 days to tell authorities. “This provision is problematic in that if an offender is away for a shorter period of time and commits an offence there will be no record on the National Sex Offender Registry of the offender being in the location of their absence…Reporting of absences should occur prior to departure and the period of absence before a reporting requirement should be shortened. Otherwise, a sex offender can simply travel outside of the locale in which their residence is located, commit an offence and be undetectable using the registry. Reporting of absences after departure thus significantly limits the utility of the registry as an investigative tool.”
  • Although it may not resonate with the public, the RCMP’s biggest beef with the registry is that it can’t be linked to other police databases. The Mounties maintain two other notable systems—Rigel, a geographic profiling tool; and ViCLAS, a collection of violent crime case files, both solved and unsolved. However, the police are strictly prohibited from comparing information on the registry with any other database. “In an age of technological advancement, it is only reasonable that the police use the tools available to them in a coordinated manner to maximize the value of the tools and improve their response to crime,” the Mounties wrote. “This is what is expected of the policing community by the Canadian public. Such strict prohibitions in relation to data matching limit the ability of the police to utilize the investigative tools available to them to their maximum potential.”

Bill S-3 is now in effect. It corrected none of the RCMP’s major concerns.

July/August 2006 — As the Mounties plead for change behind closed doors, Peter Whitmore strikes again. A repeat pedophile with a long list of repugnant crimes, Whitmore kidnaps and sexually assaults two young boys before being cornered by police at an abandoned farmhouse in rural Saskatchewan. The registry doesn’t deserve all the blame for what happened to those boys (Whitmore was under strict police supervision, but when that court order expired, nobody seemed in any hurry to renew it). However, the Mounties seized the opportunity to warn Stockwell Day, Harper’s new Public Safety Minister, just how dysfunctional the registry is.

“There are a number of weaknesses and gaps in SOIRA [the Sex Offender Information Registration Act] that diminish the effectiveness and utility of the [registry],” reads one confidential memo, sent to Day on August 11, 2006. “The recent media attention, including criticism of the NSOR, provides an opportunity for the government to review the legislation and take the necessary steps to strengthen it before an incident occurs that highlights one or more of the concerns raised.”

The memo continues: “The implementation of SOIRA and the ongoing operation of the NSOR-D falls to the law enforcement community, and principally to the RCMP. In spite of the RCMP’s responsibility, the RCMP was provided with limited opportunity for input/involvement in development of the original legislation or the amendment process that followed. The RCMP’s exclusion from the legislative amendment process presents significant challenges for an agency striving to meet the high expectations Canadians have for the NSOR.”

The memo recommends “an immediate review of SOIRA,” and that the RCMP “play a more significant role in the legislative amendment process.” The note also includes a detailed chart entitled: “Restrictions to Proper Database and Program Management.” Among the items listed on the chart:

  • No proactive/preventive use — “Police are unable to access the registry following a child abduction until the investigation rules out any possible non-sexual motive. Given the urgency of such investigations to effect a rescue of an abducted child, this provision has the effect of hindering police and delaying the use of an investigative aid.”
  • Lack of administrative data contained on the actual database — “The lack of administrative data elements within the NSOR-D has created problems with respect to the functionality of the database, organization of data within the database, and the ability of police personnel to perform and manage their duties and enforce the Act,” the memo reads. “The inability to capture the next reporting date precludes us from establishing a flag system that would notify a registration centre when a registrant is due to register.”
  • Still no deal with Corrections — “Currently there is no provision in SOIRA to allow for the collection of release dates or the sharing of this information between Correctional Service Canada and the NSOR. Given that proposed release dates for prisoners change, it is not possible to ensure offender compliance for those offenders who have been sentenced to a period of custody. CSC advise that they have no legal authority to release information to the National Sex Offender Registry.”
  • Inclusion is not mandatory — “There appears from early study to be some disparity in the application of SOIRA. In some cases, Crowns are not applying for a SOIRA order (Ontario continues to report less than 40% while other provinces are reporting much higher numbers) and in others, judges are choosing not to grant the order…While it is recognized that not all individuals who commit sexual offences pose a significant risk to the public and therefore not all should be required to register, there is a fear that some offenders who do pose a risk are falling through the cracks.”

More than a year later, the federal government has done nothing to address the RCMP’s concerns.