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Bitter Quebec prosecutors forced back to work Add to ...

Sonia LeBel has spent 20 years putting bikers, drug traffickers and murderers behind bars. On Tuesday, forced to return to work by special government legislation, she said she is contemplating quitting for the first time in her life.

Ms. LeBel joined a glum procession of black-robed prosecutors at Montreal's Palais de justice who marched silently to offices and courtrooms under conditions they say undermine Quebec's criminal justice system.

After an all-night sitting of the National Assembly, the Liberal government used its majority to adopt back-to-work legislation early Tuesday morning. Voicing bitterness and a loss of confidence in the Charest government, crown prosecutors and government lawyers warned the law could have serious consequences for the province's justice system.

"We were stabbed in the back," Ms. LeBel said of the government's action to end a two-week strike. "We weren't standing up for … more money in our pockets, we were standing up for a system we believe in. And they just showed us that it wasn't important."

The only people celebrating are criminals, she said. "Because we gave them a Crown that's not equipped to fight them."

Passage of the special legislation underscored Quebec's acrimonious political climate. In recent months, the Liberal government has been plagued by allegations of unethical practices and charges that it is unwilling to tackle corruption in the construction industry. Now it has locked horns with the same prosecutors it was counting on to lead the fight against organized crime.

By forcing a settlement with the lawyers, Premier Jean Charest helped pave the way for prorogation of the National Assembly only moments after the back-to-work legislation was adopted. Mr. Charest then announced that he will deliver on Wednesday an inaugural speech outlining a new set of priorities for his government.

Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier urged the province's 1,500 disgruntled prosecutors and government lawyers to return to the bargaining table to negotiate working conditions that were left out of the back-to-work legislation. But he acknowledged that the level of dissatisfaction against his government would work against him.

"We recognize the situation is not the best right now. Our decision was based on the objective that judicial services would be given to society. That is why the bill was tabled and adopted," Mr. Fournier said.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois heaped scorn on the government's invitation to return to the bargaining table after ordering lawyers back to work.

"It seems to me they should have done this before," Ms. Marois said. "Now that they've created the mess by imposing legislation and breaking the bond of confidence … I don't think people have much desire to go back and negotiate."

Christian Leblanc, head of the association representing Quebec prosecutors, said the Crown will now face even more difficulty recruiting and retaining talent. The prosecutors had been asking for eight years for more resources and better salaries to bring them up to parity with colleagues in other provinces. Their wages are 40 per cent below average; the government gave them a 6-per-cent increase over five years.

"People are returning to work with great sadness and a feeling of shame for working for this government," Mr. Leblanc said. Ultimately, however, it's the victims of crime who will pay the price, he said.

Combined with vacancies on the bench and protests by provincial corrections officers seeking better working conditions, "the ship is sinking," Mr. Leblanc said.

In a show of support for their fellow lawyers, most of the chief prosecutors and assistant chief prosecutors who manage the justice system asked for reassignment to other duties.

And almost all of the 450 crown prosecutors said they would boycott job openings with the recently created anti-corruption unit. Claude Chartrand, the chief prosecutor in the fight against organized crime, resigned on Monday, and has warned that the upcoming trial of 155 Hells Angels members could be jeopardized.

"Those who are rejoicing over all of this are the biker gang members going to trial," Jean-Guy Dagenais, head of the Quebec Provincial Police Association, said in a Radio-Canada interview.

The director of prosecution services, Louis Dionne, rejected a call that he should resign for failing to speak out during the strike.

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