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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty visits The Globe and Mail's editorial board in Toronto on Sept. 29, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty visits The Globe and Mail's editorial board in Toronto on Sept. 29, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

East-West rift opening over crime bill Add to ...

A divide is emerging between Eastern and Western Canada over the federal government’s law-and-order agenda, as a debate heats up over the costs of the anti-crime measures and the substance of the bill itself.

Quebec has moved to form a united front among all the provinces to fight the bill. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has joined forces with Quebec Premier Jean Charest, allowing Canada’s two largest provinces to speak with one voice in pressuring Ottawa to pick up the tab for higher costs the proposed laws would impose on the provinces.

But with at least three provinces throwing their support behind Ottawa’s move to impose mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and toughen the youth justice system, among other things, the Quebec-led effort faces an uphill battle. Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia are all in favour of the bill.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said she is siding with the Harper government even as her government pursues a deal with Ottawa to finance the additional costs to the justice system.

“We do need to be tougher on crime in this country,” Ms. Clark told reporters on Wednesday. “There are going to be costs associated with this, and we have to work through them with the federal government. But, ultimately, I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

East of the Manitoba border, there is little support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s crackdown on lawbreakers. Mr. McGuinty is focusing his objections on the fact that the federal government is dictating Ontario’s priorities at a time of limited financial resources rather than on the bill itself, which would lead to higher prison costs for the provinces.

“It’s easy to sit on high in Ottawa and pass laws,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters on Wednesday. “But if there are accompanying costs, we’re not prepared to accept those in Ontario.” Furthermore, he said, “I don’t think premiers across the country are prepared to accept those.”

Quebec’s concerns go well beyond the added cost burden for the provinces, with officials questioning the merits of imposing tougher sentences on young offenders, saying there is plenty of evidence that rehabilitation is far more effective.

Jean-Marc Fournier, Quebec’s justice minister, wrote a letter to his federal counterpart, Rob Nicholson, and all provincial justice ministers on Sept. 30, arguing that rehabilitating young offenders has enabled his province to post the lowest rates of recidivism in Canada.

If more provinces support Quebec’s position, Mr. Fournier said Wednesday, that may persuade the federal government to amend a bill that it is fast-tracking through Parliament.

“We have a Plan A,” Mr. Fournier said. “All the better if we can have a Plan A+ with the support of other provinces.”

So far, however, Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province that has embraced Quebec’s position in its entirety. Felix Collins, the Atlantic province’s justice minister, said he has never seen a study that favours more prison time as a way to cut rates of re-offence and improve public safety.

“Incarcerating more people is not the answer,” Mr. Collins said.

The Quebec government is refusing to say how it will react if Bill C-10 goes through unchanged. Still, the pressure would be strong inside the province – both from the opposition Parti Québécois and the legal system – to find ways around provisions such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and tougher sentences for youth offenders.

Defence lawyer Giuseppe Battista, who chairs the criminal-law committee of the Quebec Bar Association, said in an interview there have been cases in the past where the provincial government used its constitutional power over the administration of justice to circumvent federal laws. For example, he said, Quebec prosecutors found ways around stringent laws on the importation of drugs as well as Criminal Code provisions against abortions.

In Ottawa, Mr. Nicholson accused the Official Opposition of being against further spending to put drug traffickers and child pornographers in jail, after New Democrat MP Jack Harris asked how many police officers would be taken off the streets to pay for “megaprisons.”

“Canadians gave us a mandate to go after criminals in this country and that is exactly what we are going to do,” Mr. Nicholson said.

With reports from Justine Hunter in Victoria and The Canadian Press

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