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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deliver his opening remarks at the National Summit on Combatting Auto Theft on Feb. 8, 2024 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says stiffer penalties for auto theft are under consideration to combat what he called an alarming issue.

Mr. Trudeau’s government has faced pressure from Ontario, the federal Conservatives and others to take additional steps to curb the soaring trend, which has affected thousands of Canadians annually, particularly in urban centres in Quebec and Ontario.

On Thursday, a national summit on the issue was held in Ottawa, a move announced last month by the Prime Minister at a cabinet retreat. The event was designed to pull together provinces, territories, law enforcement and industry players to discuss the matter.

“We need to stop these criminals, who are part of gangs and organized crime,” Mr. Trudeau said in his opening remarks to the summit, adding Ontario is one of the hot spots for these crimes.

Globe readers share their stories of auto theft, and the solutions they've found

“We are also looking at further strengthening penalties for anyone who participates in auto theft.”

The federal government said Thursday that the Department of Justice will examine potential amendments to the Criminal Code to strengthen laws related to auto theft, and it will review existing offences and penalties.

Mr. Trudeau said organized crime is becoming “more brazen” and the international black market for stolen vehicles is expanding. He pointed to examples of cases, such as an individual who had a vehicle stolen in Toronto and learned it ended up in Ghana.

It has become too easy to get sophisticated electronic devices that make it simple to copy car key fobs, he added. The federal government has said it will pursue all avenues to ban devices used to steal vehicles by copying wireless signals for remote keyless entry.

The federal government says the vast majority of stolen vehicles that are exported are destined for Africa and the Middle East, while some vehicles also remain in Canada.

It says data from 2022 indicates that rates of vehicle theft rose by 50 per cent in Quebec, 48 per cent in Ontario, 35 per cent in Atlantic Canada and 18 per cent in Alberta, compared to the previous year.

OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique, who was among those attending Thursday’s summit, told reporters that 68 per cent of those convicted in Ontario serve a sentence of six months or less.

The Liberal government is looking to put a dent in automobile theft by finding ways to ban devices commonly used to steal vehicles and eyeing tougher criminal penalties for perpetrators. The proposals presented on Feb. 8 are among the more concrete ideas that emerged from a daylong summit aimed at confronting the national scourge of auto theft.

The Canadian Press

“We need to see stiffer penalties,” he told reporters. “We absolutely need to have a deterrence for these crimes.”

Ontario Solicitor-General Michael Kerzner has urged Ottawa to take steps including mandatory minimum penalties for violent car thefts.

Commissioner Carrique said there has been a 206-per-cent increase in carjackings in the Greater Toronto Area and that the prevalence of firearms is “very concerning.”

This week, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre repeatedly blamed Mr. Trudeau for not acting fast enough to address auto thefts and called for the use of X-ray technology to scan for stolen cars at the country’s major ports. The sentiment has been echoed by Alberta.

In a statement ahead of the summit, Alberta Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis said “crime policies by the Liberal/NDP alliance in Ottawa has allowed criminals in Canada to thrive with little or no consequences, and the rise in auto theft is just one example as Justin Trudeau has allowed this crime wave to continue.”

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said the problem is complex. On Wednesday, he announced an extra $28-million to boost the ability of the Canada Border Services Agency to search shipping containers for stolen cars.

Mr. LeBlanc said the new money would mean border guards will have “more capacity” to search shipping containers that may hold stolen cars and can improve its information sharing with police and other agencies, both across Canada and internationally.

The Public Safety Minister has also said Ottawa is looking at increasing resources for local police forces and the RCMP to better work with Interpol in order to crack down on the transnational organized crime driving up car-theft rates. Further details have yet to be provided.

Amanda Dean, vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada for Ontario and the Atlantic, said claims related to auto theft in 2022 amounted to $1.2-billion. Ontario represented $700-million of that figure, and $500-million of that was from the Greater Toronto Area.

“This is certainly a national crisis,” she said, adding the Insurance Bureau wants to see concrete measures such as addressing why it is so easy to export stolen vehicles. “It is an absolute epidemic in Ontario at this point in time.”

Maria Ladouceur, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said this week that resources have been “strategically allotted” at ports for work examining containers.

Police across Canada lead investigations into vehicle theft, she said, adding the agency “acts on 100 per cent of referrals from them to stop stolen vehicles from leaving the country.”

“The CBSA counts on police to provide timely referrals and intelligence, to take swift possession of stolen vehicles and to successfully prosecute cases to stem vehicle theft at the source,” she said.

With a report from Jeff Gray in Toronto

Have you had your car stolen? Are you taking steps to prevent it from happening?

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- with a file from Jeff Gray in Toronto

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