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The prison yard of the Orsainville Detention Centre near Quebec City. (FRANCIS VACHON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The prison yard of the Orsainville Detention Centre near Quebec City. (FRANCIS VACHON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tories' life-without-parole bill in limbo Add to ...

The Conservative government’s bill to make some convicted killers spend life in prison with no parole – introduced with great fanfare in early March – is now unlikely to pass before the coming federal election.

Ottawa says it is running out of time to proceed with the controversial Life Means Life legislation, also known as Bill C-53.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan told The Globe and Mail Sunday night that the government’s priority is passing its budget. Bill C-53 and another crime bill, aimed at toughening statutory release, are “important pieces of legislation,” he said by e-mail, adding: “With limited time left before the House rises, it will be a challenge to pass them.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the new legislation at a public event in Toronto, inviting family members of murder victims, including Sharon Rosenfeldt, whose son Daryn was killed by Clifford Olson in 1981, and Ed and Sylvie Teague, whose daughter Jennifer (Ms. Teague’s stepdaughter) was killed in 2005 in Ottawa.

On March 11, the government introduced the bill in the Commons. Since then, it has shown little interest in the proposed legislation. The justice committee appears to have wrapped up its work without receiving the bill for a line-by-line study. Conservative MP Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Peter MacKay, gave what appeared to be a final thank you to members of his own party and opposition members who served on the committee, according to a transcript of a May 13 justice committee meeting. No meetings are scheduled for this week.

The Commons calendar shows it is closing on June 23 and remaining closed until after the federal election in October. The Senate would need to debate and pass the bill, too. Bills with all-party consent can be pushed through quickly. But the life-without-parole bill is contentious.

“You have to assume they’re making a deliberate decision about that,” said a close observer of government crime legislation, who asked not to be identified. The observer said the bill is too controversial to deal with before the election, and the government can still say to voters, “this is why you need us back.”

The bill would mean no possibility of parole for some categories of first-degree murder: those who commit “especially brutal murders,” those who kill during a sex assault, kidnapping or act of terrorism, and those who kill prison guards or police officers. Under current law, the first chance at full parole for first-degree murder is at 25 years. Cabinet could authorize release after 35 years in exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Teague said in an interview that the life-without-parole bill was a positive step for families of murder victims who can be assured that, in a country without the death penalty, those who commit brutal murders would pay for their crimes.

“That is sad that we have to go through this delay. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether the existing government returns to power.” Sooner or later, he said, government of any stripe will need to listen to victims’ voices. “They just can’t continue to go on the way they’ve been going on.”

Archie Kaiser, a law professor from Schulich law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said he hopes the bill’s demise will mean “a retreat from the increasing vengefulness of current criminal-justice policy.”

Some legal critics have said the bill is likely to be rejected by the courts. Even the Prime Minister’s former legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin, who supports the thrust of the bill, has said it is likely to be ruled unconstitutional unless the government softens it – by making it totally at a judge’s discretion, and giving judges the option of setting parole eligibility at between 25 and 75 years.

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