Armed with a majority, the Harper government is setting out to refashion Canada's justice system with a sweeping crime bill to toughen punishments for a range of offenders, from drug dealers to sexual predators to what Justice Minister Rob Nicholson calls "out-of-control young people."
The Safe Streets and Communities Act was a centrepiece of the Conservative Party's spring re-election platform, and the Tories – mindful of ingrained voter cynicism about unfulfilled political promises – are giving it pride of place as the first bill introduced in the fall sitting. During the campaign, they promised to pass it within 100 business days of Parliament's return.
Even as he unveiled the 102-page justice legislation, Mr. Nicholson promised the Tories haven't exhausted their enthusiasm for more crime laws.
"This is not the end; this is just the beginning of our efforts in this regard," Mr. Nicholson said during a news conference in Brampton, Ont., a city that was a key battleground in the 2011 election and is now part of the Conservatives' Toronto-area fortress. "We'll introduce other legislation as well."
Bill C-10, tabled in the Commons on Tuesday, combines nine separate bills that the Conservatives failed to enact into law during their minority government years but can now easily pass given their majority of seats in both the Commons and Senate.
It will rewrite laws on the production and possession of drugs, on young offenders, parole and house arrest, pardons and anti-terrorism, among others. In many cases, the Tories are increasing, or introducing, minimum sentences for offences – from possessing pot to bestiality to incest.
Opposition critics denounced the measures as retrograde and costly, but it was telling that few political rivals dared to criticize the legislation during Question Period, the main daily forum for attacking the government. No MP relishes being labelled soft on crime.
Speaking to reporters earlier Tuesday, NDP justice critic Joe Comartin predicted the tougher sentencing rules would land thousands more offenders in provincial and federal prisons each year and impose burdensome new costs on governments across Canada.
The Justice Minister defended the measures in the face of figures showing crime on average is decreasing in Canada. "We're not governing on the basis of the latest statistics; we're governing on the basis of what's right to better protect victims and law-abiding Canadians," Mr. Nicholson said.
Data released this summer showed the national crime rate is continuing its 20-year decline – reaching levels not seen since 1973.
Mr. Nicholson was quick to point out, however, that drug crimes and child sexual exploitation crimes are bucking this downward trend – developments that reflect the fact that authorities are cracking down on these offences.
The Justice Minister refused to put a price tag on how much it would cost taxpayers to support the new crime bill, including the expense of expanding prisons. Earlier this year, however, the Tories had suggested their plans for 18 anti-crime measures would cost $631-million – on top of the price of building more prison cells, estimated to total $2.1-billion over five years.
Tuesday's bill is laden with political symbolism. One measure paves the way for Canadian victims of terrorist acts to sue the perpetrators and supporters of terrorism in Canadian courts, including seeking compensation from foreign states.
It sets Jan. 1, 1985, as the date from which Canadian terrorism victims can seek redress. This means families of the Flight 182 Air India bombings of June, 1985, are eligible.
One government source said the dating is deliberate, adding it would have been stupid to introduce such a measure but then neglect to include the worst act of terror committed against Canadians. The victims on Flight 182 included 280 Canadians.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, speaking Tuesday morning, dismissed the planned embrace of more prison time as a means of tackling crime. He said this approach has failed in the United States.
"The states in the U.S. which have participated in this folly for the last 25 to 30 years, even those governed by Tea Party people, are saying, 'We can't afford this: it's a waste of time and money – let's change course,' " he said.
"It's time we woke up as Canadians and recognize this government is taking us on a forced march not back to the 19th century but back to the 18th century before people began to look at the criminal justice system and say that they were incarcerating all sorts of people who didn't belong in jail."
What's in the omnibus crime bill
The omnibus crime bill includes nine former crime bills which the Harper government failed to pass when it held a minority in Parliament. They are:
1) The Protecting Children from Sexual Predators Act, which would impose mandatory minimum sentences for a range of sexual offences involving someone under the age of 16 and create two new offences, one for making sexually explicit information available to a child and another for agreeing or arranging to commit a sexual offence against a child.
2) The Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act, which would impose mandatory penalties for certain drug crimes and special penalties for drug offences carried out by organized criminal gangs or those that target youth. Possession of six marijuana plants for the purposes of trafficking, for instance, would result in a mandatory six-month term. Production of cannabis oil or resin would mean a year and a half behind bars.
3) The Protecting the Public from Violent Young Offenders Act, which would make public safety a primary goal of young offenders legislation, keep violent and repeat young offenders off the streets while awaiting trial, require courts to consider adult sentences for youths aged 14 and up convicted of the most serious crimes, enable the courts to impose harsher sentences on other violent and repeat offenders, and allow the publication of the names of violent young offenders.
4) The Ending House Arrest for Property and Other Serious Crimes by Serious and Violent Offenders Act, which would prevent judges from imposing conditional sentences for crimes involving serious personal injury, crimes which carry a maximum prison term of 14 years or more, and some other specified offences – escaping prison, luring a child, criminal harassment, sexual assault, human trafficking, abduction, theft over $5,000, breaking-and-entering, and arson – when those offences are prosecuted by indictment rather than the less serious summary conviction.
5) The Increasing Offender Accountability Act, which would enshrine a victim's right to participate in parole hearings and address inmate accountability, responsibility and management under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
6) The Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act, which would replace the term pardon with "record suspension" and deny suspensions to people convicted of sexually abusing children, as well as those convicted by indictment of more than three offences. Criminals convicted by indictment would have to wait 10 years for a record suspension. Those receiving less serious summary convictions would have to wait five years.
7) The Keeping Canadians Safe (International Transfer of Offenders) Act (previously Bill C-5), which would give the Minister of Public Safety more leeway to deny a transfer to Canada of Canadians convicted abroad.
8) The Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act and related amendments to the State Immunity Act, which would allow victims of terrorism to sue perpetrators and supporters of terrorism, including listed foreign states, for loss or damage that occurred as a result of an act of terrorism committed anywhere in the world after Jan. 1, 1985.
9) The Preventing the Trafficking, Abuse and Exploitation of Vulnerable Immigrants Act. This so-called anti-strippers measure would authorize immigration officers to refuse work permits to vulnerable foreign nationals when it is determined that they are at risk of humiliating or degrading treatment, including sexual exploitation or human trafficking.