The federal government has left Canada’s provinces and territories in the dark about the cost of the omnibus crime bill even as the legislation heads to the Senate for approval.
The controversial bill includes new mandatory minimum sentences and tougher sentencing for young offenders, among other changes. It is expected to put more people in jail for longer, ratcheting up the cost of administering justice at both the provincial and federal levels.
After limiting debate on the bill in committee and the House of Commons, the Conservatives used their majority status to move it through third reading on Monday night.
But Canada’s most populous provinces say they still don’t know how much of the financial burden the federal government expects them to bear.
Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said the legislation will require “significant” new spending for which the province has not budgeted.
“In our view, it is not appropriate for one level of government to create financial burdens for another without discussion and an appropriate financial offset,” she wrote in a recent letter to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
The federal government has said its share of the bill will be $78.6-million over five years, although opposition MPs say that underestimates its true cost. The figure does not include spending on provincial and territorial jails, which deal with anyone sentenced for less than two years.
Quebec’s Ministry of Public Security estimates it will cost $294-million to $545-million to expand the province’s prisons, and an additional $40-million to $74-million each year to service the growing inmate population.
That cost is in addition to the $299-million Quebec currently spends on prisons each year, the ministry said.
Quebec has said it would refuse to pay the cost because it strongly opposes the new rules for young offenders, which it believes will hurt their prospects for rehabilitation.
A spokeswoman from Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson’s office said transfer payments to the provinces and territories have increased by 30 per cent since the Conservative government took office, but declined to say whether the payments would continue to increase to reflect the added costs of the bill.
“There’s ongoing discussions between both levels of government, and I think that’s important to get their input on – on all these initiatives and the initiatives that we’ll take forward,” Mr. Nicholson told reporters on Monday, adding that he gets together with his provincial counterparts at least once a year.
But representatives from Alberta, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and other provinces said on Monday they still had no word from Ottawa on how much they would be expected to pay.
Many of the provinces said they expect the federal government to step in with additional support if their costs rise.
Manitoba Attorney-General Andrew Swan said his government supports many aspects of the crime bill, but still expects a hand from the government, particularly to expand the province’s drug courts and legal aid programs.
“If the federal government steps up, we think we can work well [with the legislation]” he said.
With reports from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec, Karen Howlett in Toronto and Justine Hunter in Vancouver