Reducing violent crimes against children and strengthening the rights of victims in the justice system will be the priorities for the Harper government's criminal justice agenda in the coming months, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said today.
Victims' rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy and Ontario Provincial Police deputy commissioner Vince Hawkes joined Nicholson for a roundtable in Toronto to promote the government's next steps, which appear focused on several familiar themes.
Although other types of crime are going down, Nicholson said, the government wants to act on the "serious issue" of violent crimes, including those against very young children.
"This is wrong, this is unacceptable, this has to stop," Nicholson told reporters. "The interests of victims and law-abiding Canadians are the priority."
The government also wants to prevent repeat offenders, he said.
Nicholson confirmed the government will move forward with its commitment to pass a victims' bill of rights later this year, entrenching several measures into a single piece of legislation. Victims rights groups are currently being consulted on what needs to go into this legislation, his office told CBC News, and no timeline was offered for the bill's introduction.
The justice minister also said additional changes will enhance victims' ability to obtain restitution for the losses they incur when crimes are committed.
Bill C-37, styled by the government as the Increasing Offenders’ Accountability for Victims Act, was passed by the House of Commons just before Christmas and is currently before the Senate. It changes the rules for victims' surcharges — the monetary penalty that convicted criminals pay to their victims — a move applauded by Kennedy at Monday's news conference.
The Conservative government also created a new federal ombudsman for the victims of crime, who said in a report last year that the government needed to do more to improve the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system. Data supplied Monday by the justice minister's office suggested that the vast majority of the costs of crime are currently borne by victims.
New crackdown on child predators?
Nicholson said that later this year the government will introduce legislation to stiffen penalties for child sexual offences, including addressing "the risks posed by known sex offenders."
No details were offered as to exactly what those tougher penalties might be.
Background information supplied by the government said that the exact prevalence of sexual offences against children in Canada is unknown, but that sexual offences are among the most underreported crimes in Canada.
Recent efforts by police to target crimes like internet child pornography have contributed to an increase in the police-reported incidence of sexual offences.
The government was criticized for introducing a controversial online surveillance bill last year that was titled the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, despite the fact that the text of the bill did not specifically discuss children or predators.
Government House leader Peter Van Loan has said C-30 won't be debated in the Commons in the near future, and some have speculated it will be replaced with different legislation to alleviate concerns expressed about C-30, including by members of the Conservative caucus.
In an interview with Evan Solomon broadcast on CBC News Network's Power & Politics at 5 p.m. ET Monday, Nicholson appeared to suggest the government was considering a revision to the internet surveillance bill.
"We're looking at all aspects of that and when we have an announcement to make, we'll make it," he said.
The justice minister also announced something Van Loan mentioned last week: The government will soon introduce legislation to "ensure that public safety should be the paramount consideration in the decision-making process involving high-risk accused found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder."
The justice minister's office highlighted a 2006 study that concluded most of the crimes committed by an individual found not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder were violent crimes, mainly assaults.
Nicholson and Hawkes spoke about other measures under consideration, including changes to the current bail system and the need to speed up extradition cases in Canada, which take an average of 2½ years to process.
New technologies may be made available for law enforcement officials to reduce the amount of red tape they must deal with and the inefficiencies or delays in the justice system that result.
"These delays cause personal and social costs that are incalculable," Nicholson said, pointing out that current delays in cases coming to trial can see charges stayed or victims no longer able to give accurate testimony.
Recent victim support announcements
Kennedy, a former NHL player who was abused by his coach during his junior hockey career, is a vocal advocate for victims rights in the justice system through the organization he co-founded, Respect Group.
Kennedy is a proponent of stiffer measures against child sex offenders. At various times in recent years, he has appeared before parliamentary committees and at news conferences to endorse the government's focus on support for victims of crime.
"I couldn’t have imagined 16 years ago, when I disclosed my abuse, that we would be talking about these issues so openly and with such commitment to make positive change for victims," Kennedy said in a news release Monday, thanking the federal government for its attention to his issues.
Theo Fleury, another NHL player assaulted in his youth by the same coach who abused Kennedy, reacted more skeptically on Twitter: "Is this more smoke and mirrors," he wrote, or "will we actually see this happen?" He later retweeted a newspaper column that called the government's "tough on crime" agenda "all torque."
Nicholson made a series of funding announcements in the last week of January geared toward child-assault victims.
In Calgary, the justice minister pledged $185,000 for the Canadian Society for the Investigation of Child Abuse, which is working on the creation of a national voluntary certification program for forensic child interviewers.
Ottawa also provided $1.2 million for three separate programs in Montreal that deal with young victims of sexual abuse, committed $600,000 to victims of crime in Yukon and promoted a Children's Advocacy Centre in Winnipeg.