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Minister of Justice David Lametti told a House committee Monday that Ottawa is open to possible changes to Canada's bail system, but also said it is false to attribute recent tragic incidents to Bill C-75, which made changes to Canada’s bail laws when it was enacted in 2019.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Justice Minister David Lametti is defending Canada’s bail system, calling it “strong and sound,” as premiers, federal Conservatives, and law enforcement leaders have continued their calls for more restrictive bail measures.

The Justice Minister told a House committee Monday that Ottawa is open to possible changes, but also said it is false to attribute recent tragic incidents to Bill C-75, which made changes to Canada’s bail laws when it was enacted in 2019.

In his remarks, Mr. Lametti referenced the on-duty killing, in late December, of 28-year-old Ontario Provincial Police Constable Grzegorz Pierzchala. One of the suspects accused of the constable’s killing was out on bail for previous alleged violent offences – circumstances that have galvanized calls for change from law enforcement.

Mr. Lametti said the government is committed to ensuring public safety, and at the same time, change to the bail system must not further exacerbate the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people within Canadian jails.

“There are no easy solutions to such a complex matter,” Mr. Lametti said. “We must not further marginalize vulnerable people, including those struggling with mental-health issues and addiction. It’s a delicate balance.”

Accused people in Canada are not guaranteed bail, and by law it can be denied under specific grounds, including for reasons of public safety. That said, accused people do have a Charter right not be denied bail without just cause, and for bail to be on “reasonable” terms.

In the months since Constable Pierzchala’s killing, the Liberal government has been under pressure to enact more restrictive bail procedures, particularly around firearms offences and repeat violent offenders. Mr. Lametti is set to meet with provincial and territorial ministers of justice and public safety on March 10 to hear their concerns about existing bail laws.

While these politicians call for more restrictive laws, some criminologists and criminal defence lawyers have raised concerns with this idea – saying Canada already has strict bail laws, including processes for courts to deny bail. And they say that the notion the country has a “catch-and-release” bail system – as some politicians, particularly federal Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre, have said – is false.

The tension between these viewpoints is set to be explored as the House of Commons committee on justice and human rights continues its study of Canada’s bail system, which it began last month, with testimony from OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique.

The committee heard extensively Monday about Bill C-75. The law acted to codify a landmark 2017 Supreme Court decision, known as R v. Antic. That court decision requires police and courts to release individuals at the earliest reasonable opportunity – and not apply unnecessary release conditions.

Pressed by Conservative MPs, Mr. Lametti said he doesn’t accept their position that changes made under the law have had a negative impact on public safety.

Mr. Lametti noted that the bill did not modify the tests that determine when an accused person may be released by a court, and told the committee the legislation has been the subject of significant “misinformation.”

The House committee opted for a study of bail, after Canada’s 13 premiers sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Jan. 13, 2023, calling for bail processes to be strengthened. The letter referred to the need to better protect the public, as well as first responders.

The premiers called for “reverse onus” bail provisions to be expanded to include a specific firearms-related offence. Reverse onus means that instead of the Crown needing to prove an alleged offender should be denied bail, as is usual, the accused must show why they should receive it.

Brantford Police Service Chief Robert Davis and Six Nations Police Service Chief Darren Montour, who also testified Monday, agreed that an expansion of reverse onus provisions for certain firearms offences would be helpful – a position that Commissioner Carrique also took.

“We’re seeing, mainly those trafficking in illicit drugs, possessing handguns more,” Chief Montour said. “We don’t need those individuals walking the streets in our communities with a loaded firearm, especially if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”

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