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Canada Peter MacKay says changes could be coming to impaired driving laws

Minister of Justice Peter MacKay (second left) shares a laugh with Minister of National Defence Rob Nicholson (left) July 15, 2013 during a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The new federal justice minister says the Conservative government is considering changes to impaired driving legislation in the Criminal Code.

But Peter MacKay, who only took over the portfolio earlier this month, wouldn't say exactly what is being pondered as he headed into a meeting with crime victims in Edmonton.

"I can tell you I did numerous trials on impaired driving cases, first as a defence lawyer and then prosecuting cases," Mr. MacKay said Thursday, recalling his time working as a lawyer in Nova Scotia.

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"I recall vividly a judge making a statement in a trial that I was prosecuting to the accused that driving down the road while under the effect of drugs or alcohol is no different than pointing a gun at another human being."

Mr. MacKay said he wanted to meet with more victims of impaired driving before announcing the changes the government is contemplating.

One of the people Mr. MacKay met with Thursday was a mother whose 18-year-old son was one of three Alberta men killed in a crash where drunk driving was suspected.

The ministers words were a huge relief for Sheri Arsenault, whose son Bradley Arsenault died along with two friends south of Edmonton on Nov. 26, 2011.

Jonathan Pratt, 28, of Beaumont, Alta., is charged in the case, which is still before the courts.

"Finally somebody in government is maybe going to listen to us," Ms. Arsenault said.

Ms. Arsenault has become a spokesperson for Families for Justice, a group which has been collecting names on a petition calling for mandatory minimum sentences for impaired driving causing death. The petition also calls for the Criminal Code to be changed to redefine the offence of impaired driving causing death as vehicular manslaughter.

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Last fall, provincial justice ministers asked the federal government to consider increased penalties for impaired driving, particularly crimes involving repeat offenders, serious injury or death.

Mr. MacKay said impaired driving laws need to send a strong message because of the consequences involved.

"I believe we have to continue to send that signal of just how serious an incident that is, and the consequences — the consequences that you cause, and the consequences that you have to live with when you put drugs and alcohol in your system and get behind the wheel of a car," Mr. MacKay said.

Ms. Arsenault was originally supposed to meet with former justice minister Rob Nicholson, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet shuffle earlier this month meant that meeting had to be cancelled.

Mr. MacKay apologized to Ms. Arsenault on behalf of Mr. Nicholson, saying Mr. Nicholson had been looking forward to meeting with her.

Ms. Arsenault said Mr. MacKay's announcement Thursday was the first she had heard the government was considering changes to the Criminal Code.

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"He gave me the sense that he's a regular father with a regular family who sees this crime for what it is," said Ms. Arsenault.

Ms. Arsenault noted the Harper government has made being tough on crime a motto and has brought in mandatory minimums for drug offences.

She said there should also be mandatory minimums for impaired drivers who kill.

"With drunk driving being the largest cause of criminal death in Canada by far, it's a serious concern. Nobody's safe at any time out there."

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