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Serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo would have been transferred to a medium-security prison even if a previous version of the corrections law were been in place, according to the federal Public Safety department.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said the transfer would not have happened if the Liberal government hadn’t changed the law with Bill C-83 in 2019.

Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual assault and murders of teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s and has been designated a dangerous offender.

His transfer in late May triggered widespread outrage and the families of French and Mahaffy have asked for him to return to maximum security.

Lisa Kerr: The outrage at Paul Bernardo’s transfer neglects the reality of prison conditions

The Liberal government’s 2019 legislation was meant to end the use of solitary confinement, and amended the corrections law to say officials should ensure inmates are held in the “least restrictive environment.”

Poilievre has repeatedly pointed to that language as the reason officials moved Bernardo from a maximum-security penitentiary in Ontario to a medium-security prison in Quebec, saying it is an example of the Liberal government’s lenient justice policies.

However, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada says Bernardo’s transfer would have happened under the previous wording of the law, which was brought in by the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

That version of the law stipulated that prisoners should be kept in prisons with the “necessary” restrictions. When the law was originally created by former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney in the early 1990s, it used the term “least restrictive.”

“The result of this transfer was not affected by the passage of Bill C-83. A transfer would have also occurred under the previous language of ‘necessary’ restrictions,” said Public Safety spokesperson Magali Deussing.

Anne Kelly, the commissioner of the federal corrections, said Bernardo was transferred because he had been reclassified as a medium-security prisoner.

A nearly 80-page review into the transfer explained Bernardo was moved following his demonstrated ability to integrate with other inmates.

The investigation, which concluded that officials followed proper policies, said Bernardo had met the criteria to be reclassified as a medium-security prisoner for years, but those results were “overridden” given his lack of mixing with the prison population.

The review said he applied to be moved in June 2022 and then went on to work with senior officials to develop an integration plan and was “fully integrated” within that prison by July 2022.

He was transferred on May 29 from Millhaven Penitentiary to the La Macaza Institution in Quebec, which has specialized programs for sex offenders.

Mary Campbell, a lawyer who retired from her role as director-general of the corrections and criminal justice directorate in the Public Safety Department in 2013, has said that although the wording of the corrections law has changed over the years, the principle at its heart has not.

She said the language reflects a fundamental and constitutionally protected principle in the justice system, “that people are not to be subjected to custodial or punitive or controlling measures beyond what is necessary for public safety.”

Poilievre has said Bernardo should remain in maximum-security and called on the Liberal government to pass a law prohibiting those with multiple murder convictions from being allowed to transfer from a maximum-security prison.

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