Ottawa says it wants to create a new DNA index to help police identify human remains and bring closure to the families of people who have disappeared.
The plan is among several justice-related initiatives in the 2014 budget, which also contains new funding to deal with provincial court delays and address persistent concerns about missing and murdered aboriginal women. Reforming the criminal-justice system has long been a focus for the Conservative government, which bills itself as a strong advocate for victims' rights and tough-on-crime measures.
Funding for the missing-persons index would allow police forces and coroners to submit DNA samples and other information to a central system whenever unidentified remains are found. The budget does not detail how the new index would work, but advocates suggest it could be set up to automatically test new submissions against samples given by the families of missing persons and data that is already collected from some crime scenes and convicted offenders.
The budget includes up to $8.1-million in database funding for the five years starting in 2016-2017, and another $1.3-million per year on a continuing basis.
Judy Peterson became an advocate for collecting and storing DNA information on missing persons after her 14-year-old daughter, Lindsey Jill Nicholls, vanished more than two decades ago in British Columbia. "It's important because right now, if Lindsey's remains were found anywhere across Canada, I would never know," she said.
Ms. Peterson, who flew to Ottawa for the announcement, said she is glad to see action on an initiative she has long promoted and called the change a "first big step" in finding answers for families in situations like hers.
In prepared remarks, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the missing persons' index would "help bring some peace" to families of missing persons.
Other justice initiatives announced in the budget:
Another $4.4-million in funding over two years would allow for two new judges to be appointed in Alberta and four more to be appointed in Quebec. The changes point to a growing recognition of delays in both provinces' courts that, in some cases, have resulted in serious criminal charges being dropped altogether. The federal government says the additional judges will help address "significant delays" brought on by an increase in the number of complicated and high-profile cases in those provinces.
A separate proposal would provide another $25-million over five years to programs aimed at addressing violence against aboriginal women. The government has faced criticism over its handling of the large number of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and a report by Human Rights Watch last year raised additional concerns about RCMP interactions with aboriginal women and girls in British Columbia, prompting MPs to set up a special committee to study the issue.
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the new money is a sign the government sees missing and murdered aboriginal women as a "major issue." But he said that wasn't enough to address the broader problem and called again for a national commission of inquiry on the matter.
In at least one case, funding is proposed that would appear to support criminal-justice legislation currently before Parliament. Last year, the Conservative government put forward a new bill that would make it an offence to sell contraband tobacco and would create new minimum prison sentences for repeat offenders.
The budget proposes more than $91-million over five years to help police monitor contraband tobacco trafficking activities, including new radar, sonar and ground sensor devices and long-range video cameras in high-risk areas. Areas between the Quebec-Maine border and Oakville, Ont., are identified as particularly vulnerable.
Victims' bill of rights
The document also contains a hint at what long-promised legislation on a victims' bill of rights is likely to contain. The government says it expects to create an online portal that will allow victims to access information about an offender, including a photograph, before that person is released from custody.
Justice experts have questioned whether a bill outlining victims' rights would be enforceable. Consultations have been held on the topic for close to a year, but Ottawa has provided little information on what the proposed bill might contain. The budget notes that further details on the legislation "will be announced in the coming months."