A candidate committed a crime: How long should they be held accountable for a mistake in the past?

He used a hammer to smash out the window in a pickup, and then began throwing punches at the man inside, striking him multiple times in the face and head.

Eight years later, Robert Marche says the blind rage that propelled him that day on the parking lot of the Corner Brook civic centre, with his then-wife looking on in shock, was a low point of his life.

“It was just a breakdown. I just lost myself and everything that I stood for and everything I was raised to be,” Marche said in a videoconference interview from his business on Union Street in Corner Brook.

That violent incident from February 2013 — to which Marche pleaded guilty to assault — is resurfacing in a very public way for Marche, whose character is now being questioned as he seeks to become the Progressive Conservative MHA for Humber-Bay of Islands in the Feb. 13 election in Newfoundland and Labrador.

It also raises questions about a society’s ability to forgive, while at the same time holding people —especially those seeking or holding public office or positions of trust — accountable for behaviour that crosses a line. It and other cases also test a key principle in society: that people can be rehabilitated and go on to make a productive contribution.

So how long should a person be held accountable for a mistake made in the past?

That threshold should be based on that person’s behaviour afterwards, says Cindy Murphy, executive director at the John Howard Society in St. John’s, a non-profit organization that helps people rebuild their lives after encounters with the justice system.

“If they’re able to demonstrate and prove and show they’ve moved on from that mistake and they are contributing members of our community, then they certainly should be provided an opportunity,” said Murphy.

Cindy Murphy is executive director with the John Howard Society in St. John’s. (Submitted by Cindy Murphy)

Parties can be judged by who they accept as candidates

With political parties around the world dogged by scandals, matters like corruption and illegal or inappropriate behaviour are generally taken seriously in the vetting process, or parties take a risk at the ballot box, said Amanda Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial University. 

She said the choices parties make in who they field as candidates sends a signal to voters about their values.

“Voters can figure out how they feel about parties, policies, candidates, and so on, through the signals that parties give them,” said Bittner.

“Forgiveness is a good value, but so is taking a stance on issues like corruption, assault, and violence.”

But voters in Newfoundland and Labrador can be forgiving; just ask Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Wally Andersen.

Andersen is a former Liberal MHA for Torngat Mountains, but saw his political career crash badly after he became embroiled in a spending scandal at the House of Assembly.

Andersen was convicted of forgery and breach of trust for accepting $90,000 in public money he was not entitled to receive. He was sent to jail in 2009. 

A remorseful Andersen ran in the 2016 municipal election in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and was rewarded with the most votes of any candidate. He now serves as mayor.

Wally Andersen’s political career suffered a serious setback when the former Torngat Mountains MHA became embroiled in a spending scandal at the House of Assembly. Anderson was even sent to prison. But voters in Happy Valley-Goose Bay signalled their faith in Andersen by electing him to council in 2016. He became mayor three years ago. (CBC)

Andersen would not agree to an interview, but has previously told CBC: “I accepted what came my way, I dealt with it. I put it behind me and I moved on.”

‘I made a mistake’

Like Andersen, Marche said he paid his debt to society. Has rebuilt his life. His business. And believes his past turmoil has equipped him with a level of compassion and understanding that would make him an effective politician.

“I just understand a lot of stuff of what’s going on in peoples’ lives and I believe I can bring that to a positive impact,” he says.

“I’m asking people to forgive me because I made a mistake.”

His candidacy is also shining a spotlight on political parties, and the threshold by which they measure past behaviour.

In the May 2019 provincial election, Marche sought to represent the PCs in the same district, but failed the vetting process because of his violent history.

PC Leader Ches Crosbie has offered his full support to Humber-Bay of Islands candidate Robert Marche, who is asking for forgiveness from voters for a violent incident in Corner Brook eight years ago. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Later that year, he approached the Conservative Party of Canada, wanting to run in the riding of Long Range Mountains in the federal election. Once again, he was given the cold shoulder.

This time, the Ches Crosbie-led PCs decided to give Marche a chance.

“With enough time passing by, everyone should be allowed to essentially get away from things they regret they were involved in in the past. And I think Mr. Marche deserves that chance,” said Crosbie.

So what changed from two years ago?

The passage of time, and Marche’s post-assault reputation as a good citizen.

“Life happens,” said Crosbie.

Crosbie, after all, has had experience of admitting something difficult while trying to succeed in politics. In 2017, while announcing his campaign to seek the Tory leadership, he disclosed that he had been convicted 24 years earlier of refusing a breathalyzer. The issue has only occasionally been brought up since. 

Liberals refuse to welcome former MHA

Meanwhile, the Liberals rejected former MHA Neil King as a candidate in the district of Bonavista for what King admits were “very derogatory” comments on a social media post in August 2019.

King removed the post and apologized, but the party stood by its original rejection, so King is now running as an Independent to win back the seat he lost by just 45 votes in May 2019.

King said he was “at a pretty dark place in my life with anxiety and depression” when he wrote the comment.

Neil King is seeking election in the district of Bonavista, only this time as an independent and not as a Liberal. The party rejected his nomination attempt because of a social media post in 2019. (CBC)

Bittner said in circumstances like those involving Marche and King, “the party needs to decide whether it is satisfied by the words and actions of the candidate, and whether it will publicly defend and stand by the individual’s behaviour, contrition, and attempts at rebuilding his life and his community, or whether this is too unforgivable.”

Sometimes, like in the case of Robert Marche, parties take the risk and green-light a candidate, while “sometimes, even with small scandals where nobody was harmed, parties decide not to for fear of voter reprisal.”

Marche has given speeches

Humber-Bay of Islands includes part of Corner Brook and a collection of small communities along the north and south shores of the Bay of Islands.

Marche will be on the ballot on Feb. 13 with incumbent and longtime MHA Eddie Joyce, who is again running as an Independent, and Liberal candidate Stelman Flynn.

Marche owns a printing business and is a former town councillor in Mount Moriah.

He has given speeches about how the failure of his marriage and his rampage threw his life into turmoil, and how he was motivated by his responsibility as a father of two to rebuild himself.

He willingly granted interviews in recent days, saying the assault “is certainly not something I’m proud of.”

Conditional discharge

The parking lot outburst marked a spectacular end to what was a troubled marriage for Marche. According to newspaper accounts from 2013, he discovered his wife and another man inside the pickup that day.

“I loved this person for a long long time … my whole life just caved,” he said. 

Marche was charged with assault and entered a guilty plea when the matter came before a judge. He was handed a conditional discharge, which means he walked away without a criminal record, and placed on probation for 18 months.

Amanda Bittner is a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s. (CBC)

Marche said the incident brought him to a low point in his life, and after months of depression and suicidal thoughts, he decided to seek professional help.

“I believe it’s OK to be not OK sometimes, but it’s not OK to stay that way,” he said.

Bittner said “this type of violence is not a small thing to sweep under the rug,” but she added: “We all make mistakes, and forgiveness is an important value in society.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *