OTTAWA - A Conservative senator backed off slightly on an unconventional proposal Wednesday for reducing prison costs: give serial murderers a rope and let them decide whether to hang themselves.
"Basically, every killer should (have) the right to his own rope in his cell. They can decide whether to live," Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu said, referring to people who "had no hope of rehabilitation."
A few hours later, after an outcry from the opposition and a flurry of media interest, Boisvenu issued a statement saying the comment was inappropriate and that he withdrew it.
Yet later in the day, he said it should apply to only "three or four guys."
The comment about hanging came on the same day an awareness campaign was launched on youth mental health, in memory of young Ottawa suicide victim Daron Richardson. There have also been a number of recent, high-profile prison suicides in Quebec.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper distanced himself from the remarks, but said he understood Boisvenu's feelings. Boisvenu became a prominent victims' rights advocate after his daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2002. Harper appointed him to the Senate two years ago.
"We all understand that Sen. Boisvenu and his family have suffered horribly in the past and, obviously, I think we understand his emotions in that regard," Harper said during the House of Commons question period.
Boisvenu, who often speaks on behalf of the government on crime-and-punishment issues, did not withdraw other comments he made during the same conversation with reporters.
Boisvenu said that new immigrants to Canada who come from countries where honour killing or "non-Canadian" values are present should be more carefully screened before being allowed entry.
The senator was referring to the recent conviction of the Shafias — the three Montrealers convicted in the murders of four female members of the family.
"Not capital punishment, but I think sending them back to their country would be a worse sentence than keeping them in our prisons, where the comfort is much better than over there," Boisvenu said.
And late Wednesday he reiterated his belief that the worst offenders should be given "responsibility for his life."
"What I said was guys who will be 35 or 50 years in jail, he should have the responsibility of his life. That's what I said," Boisvenu told reporters outside a Senate hearing.
"For a guy like (Clifford) Olsen, who will be a long time in jail without any possibility of parole, he should have the responsibility about what he do (sic) with his life."
"I don't say that about the 5,000 people that are in jail and have committed a homicide," Boisvenu added. "I'm talking about three or four guys."
This was not the first time Boisvenu has strayed from the government's carefully scripted message on justice issues.
In an interview with The Canadian Press in 2010 about the long-gun registry, he said the number of hunters in Quebec was declining because of the increasing numbers of single mothers who weren't passing on the tradition.
He went further in his logic, saying that fewer hunters meant more car accidents.
Fewer hunters "has a direct impact on the number of accidents on the road because deer hit cars."
Boisvenu also made waves last fall when he called Quebec "soft on crime," in the wake of a debate between the province and Ottawa over the omnibus crime bill.
Around the same time, he incurred the wrath of the Quebec Bar Association when he told a Radio-Canada show that the organization was against the crime bill because most of its members were defence lawyers.
"Those people say they're against legislation that affects their clientele and that's completely normal," he said at the time.
Boisvenu is not alone. A number of other Conservative parliamentarians have slowly begun to take positions on issues different from those of the government.
Fellow Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin refused to vote for the government's omnibus crime bill because of penalties related to growing marijuana plants.
On Wednesday, Nolin did not get a chance to question Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson at a senate committee due to time constraints, prompting him to shout at the departing Toews: "You're afraid, minister!"
Last fall, five Tory MPs abstained rather than vote against a NDP motion that would have banned the export of asbestos. Some publicly revealed their misgivings about the trade in asbestos.
Ontario MP Stephen Woodworth has called for a public debate on abortion, and his colleague Brad Trost said earlier this week that more Conservatives should feel free to speak their minds.
"It's a good thing he's speaking out for something he stands for," Trost said of Boisvenu on Wednesday. "It actually proves the point that when MPs want to, we can actually take the freedom to do it."
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said Boisvenu can no longer continue to be an official spokesman for the Harper government on its tough-on-crime agenda.
"I don't see how anybody can be a spokesman for the Conservative party in the Senate on justice issues when you've made a statement like that. It's just completely out of line."
Both Rae and interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel said Boisvenu should withdraw from the Senate committee examining the government's omnibus crime bill.
Boisvenu said he'd like to see more debate on the death penalty in Canada, but he noted that the Harper government has made it clear it has no intention of reopening the discussion.
"Under certain circumstances, I think we could reopen the debate," he said, while playing down the possibility that such a thing might happen.
— With files from Bruce Cheadle