Quebec has opened up a second front in the fight against Ottawa’s law-and-order agenda, refusing to pay for higher prison costs flowing from a federal omnibus anti-crime bill and blasting the legislation as counter-productive.
The Quebec government is also in a dispute with Ottawa over its decision to kill the long-gun registry, suggesting it will go to court to get the information it contains on gun ownership in the province and set up its own database.
Quebec and the rest of the country have long differed on the balance between punitive justice and rehabilitation, but the latest developments could threaten the recent warming of relations between Premier Jean Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Bill C-10 would impose mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and toughen the youth justice system, among other things.
On Tuesday, Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier told a parliamentary committee the legislation is an ineffective “Band-Aid” to deal with Canada’s crime problems. He said that more prison terms lead to increased rates of recidivism, and accused Ottawa of ignoring proven statistics in its bid to get tough on criminals.
“Science is useful. At some point, someone discovered that the Earth is round,” he told MPs.
In an interview, Mr. Fournier added that Quebec should be allowed to continue its more lenient system of youth justice.
“This bill will cost hundreds of millions over the years just to incarcerate people, not to mention tens of millions in court and legal costs,” he said. “We have no intention of paying for this because we are against the very idea of such a law.”
During Question Period in Quebec, Mr. Charest said his government is exploring what recourse it could take “at the legal and political levels, everything that is available” to keep a long-gun registry in the province.
Ottawa and Quebec have recently moved forward on the harmonization of their sales taxes and the construction of a new bridge in Montreal, and the federal government is preparing to announce real estate investments in the provincial capital. The dispute over crime and guns could put those gains in doubt.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty also jumped into the fray on Tuesday, saying Bill C-10 could force the province to build new prisons and train more guards.
“It’s easy for the federal government to pass new laws dealing with crime, but if there are new costs associated with those laws that have to be borne by taxpayers in the province of Ontario, then I expect that the feds will pick up that tab,” he said.
The B.C. government is not yet willing to wade into the debate about cost. “We are still working through those numbers,” B.C. Premier Christy Clark told reporters in Victoria. “The solicitor general does have some concern about what that could be ... [but]until we have a final number though, I don't have an answer.”
Ottawa has said that the data in the gun registry must be destroyed to protect the privacy rights of gun owners. But Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart undermined that on Tuesday, telling MPs there is no legislative reason the federal government can’t share it with the provinces.
The Conservatives vigorously defended their crime agenda. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Ottawa transfers billions every year to the provinces for the administration of the justice system, and that his bill is a reasonable compromise between various approaches to crime.
“It balances rehabilitation with the legitimate interest of protecting the public,” Mr. Nicholson said.
The Conservatives are seeking to limit debate on their crime agenda in Parliament, arguing that its proposals have been under discussion since 2006. The Tories say they received a clear mandate the May 2 election to enact its proposals.
However, the Conservatives hold only five of Quebec’s 75 seats. Quebec places more emphasis on rehabilitation of criminals that other provinces, and has a less punitive youth-justice system.
Réjean Pelletier, a professor of political science at Laval University in Quebec City, said that Quebec and Ottawa are likely to continue disagreeing on crime matters, especially the treatment of young offenders.
“Ottawa’s strategy on justice issues just doesn’t fly in Quebec,” Mr. Pelletier said.
With reports from Karen Howlett, Bertrand Marotte and Justine Hunter