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Politics Though Canadians feel safe, Conservatives move ahead on crime bill

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has proposed six changes to the omnibus anti-crime bill.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The vast majority of Canadians aren't worried about crime, a new study suggests, as the Conservative government prepares to send its omnibus tough-on-crime bill to the Senate for approval.

The government says the bill, which includes new mandatory minimum sentences and limits pardons, responds to Canadians who want to see Ottawa take crime more seriously.

But with MPs poised to debate the bill for the last time on Friday, the Conservatives continue to be dogged by evidence that Canadians feel safe and that most police-reported crimes in the country are on the decline.

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The latest study, released by Statistics Canada on Thursday, found that 93 per cent of those surveyed in 2009 said they were satisfied with their personal safety from crime. According to Statscan, that's about the same proportion of people who said they felt safe five years earlier, before the Conservatives came into power.

Jack Harris, the NDP justice critic, said the study is evidence many of the crime bill's provisions aren't necessary.

"That number is really not surprising to me," he said. "Crime rates are down, people feel safe in their homes, and yet we've got a government spending all this time and effort to essentially make things worse."

Mr. Harris said some aspects of the bill will make it more difficult for people to reintegrate into society after serving a sentence, adding that could result in higher rates of recidivism.

Statscan says police-reported crime dropped 4 per cent between 2009 and 2010, and violent crime fell by 3 per cent. That's part of a broader trend showing crime rates declining steadily over the past six years.

But Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said on Thursday those numbers aren't relevant to his government's legislation.

"We don't govern on the basis of statistics," he said. "If we see a need to better protect children or send a message to drug dealers, that's the basis upon which we're proceeding."

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Mr. Nicholson noted that crime is on the rise in two areas on which the bill is focused: child pornography and drug-trafficking crimes.

Child pornography incidents increased 36 per cent between 2009 and 2010, according to Statscan. Drug-related crimes rose by 10 per cent during the same period, mostly due to an increase in marijuana possession and distribution. Most other crime rates, including murder, theft, arson and assault, declined between 2009 and 2010.

In addition to toughening sentences for those convicted of child exploitation and drug offences, the omnibus bill would allow victims of terrorism to sue in Canadian courts, overhaul the pardon system and allow immigration officers to deny visas to workers they believe are vulnerable to exploitation.

An attempt by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews this week to add last-minute changes to the portion of the bill dealing with victims of terrorism was rejected because it could have been dealt with at committee. That has left the government scrambling for another way to insert the changes without spending much more time on the bill.

The Conservatives have said they wanted to pass the bill within the first 100 sitting days of Parliament.

Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler, whose nearly identical amendments were rejected two weeks ago by the Conservative-dominated committee, said the government is paying a price for rushing the legislation through the House of Commons.

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Adding the changes in Senate would take longer because the bill would have to return to the House for approval again. The government's other options include introducing new, standalone legislation to amend the bill later or, with consent from the opposition, sending the bill back to committee again.

Both Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Toews declined to say how the government plans to handle the amendments on Thursday.

Mr. Nicholson said he still hopes to see the bill passed before MPs go on their winter break, and again blamed the opposition for slowing its progress.

"For those who don't like the bill, quite frankly, if it was one day or 100 days or 1,000 days, if you don't like it … you will oppose it," Mr. Nicholson said. "I'd just like to see this move forward."

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