Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority Conservative government has begun a push to make good on a major election campaign pledge Tuesday, with the introduction — or in many cases, reintroduction — of legislation bundling together a variety of crime-fighting initiatives.

The cost of implementing the measures is a major concern for opposition parties, who have pledged to make it difficult for the government to pass the omnibus bill within 100 sitting days, as promised by the Conservatives last spring.

Speaking to reporters, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson expressed the government's "deep appreciation" for the support of Canadians in the last election, who gave the Conservative government "a strong mandate to move forward." The minister said he was "very grateful" for the public's support for these measures.

NDP critic Joe Comartin took issue with the interpretation of the government's mandate. "To see that election as being a support for any policy of the federal Conservatives, is misrepresenting the reality of what happened in that election," he said.

The bill, styled as the safe streets and communities act, contains measures from nine bills that were before Parliament when the last federal election was called, including: 

  • Additional penalties to combat serious and organized drug crimes, particularly when they involve youth, including increasing the maximum penalty for possession and production of drugs such as marijuana from seven to 14 years, factoring in security, health and safety concerns arising from marijuana grow-ops.
  • An increase in mandatory minimum penalties and sentences, including those for child exploitation.
  • The elimination of house arrest (conditional sentences) for a new list of serious offences.
  • A higher cost and more strict eligibility criteria for applying for a criminal pardon, and an elimination of pardons for some serious or repeat offences.
  • New offences concerning the distribution of pornography or the use of telecommunications to facilitate sexual crimes against children.
  • Measures to protect the public from violent young offenders, including in some cases adult sentences and the lifting of publication bans on the names of violent young offenders.
  • Expanded criteria for the public safety minister to consider when granting a transfer for a Canadian offender back to Canada.
  • Support for victims of terrorism by providing the means to launch a lawsuit in a Canadian court against an individual or organization that carried out a terrorism attack, including listed foreign states known to have sponsored terrorism.
  • Changes to the parole system to give victims a greater role and "increase offender accountability" with new sanctions and powers for police when release conditions are broken.
  • Immigration reforms to combat the exploitation and abuse of foreign exotic dancers, sex trade workers, low-skilled labourers and other potential victims of human trafficking. 

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney joined Nicholson at the news conference to release details of the latest bill.

Kenney reminded reporters that the Conservatives met their 2006 election commitment to strengthen the RCMP and put "more police on the street," including more Canada Border Service Agency officers, "but they need the legal tools as well."

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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, speaking at a parallel news conference about the same legislation in Montreal, added that more than 1,800 new police officers had been recruited since 2009, thanks to the government's $400 million fund.

Victims' advocates applaud changes

Toews was joined by Quebec Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu as well as several advocates for victims' rights, including the mother of Sébastien Lacasse, a 19-year-old Quebecer stabbed to death by a group of youths at a house party in 2004.

The omnibus bill introduced Tuesday includes measures contained previously in "Sébastien's Law," bill to amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act to change the way the system treats repeat and violent young offenders.

The other ministers at the news conference in Brampton were joined by former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who was the victim of childhood sexual abuse and has worked as a high-profile victims' advocate for the last 13 years.

His abuser was released after 18 months, and given a "rubber stamp" pardon, Kennedy noted. "Victims are scarred for life, and are not rehabilitated in 18 months."

Joe Wamback from the Canadian Crime Victim Foundation urged Parliament to pass the measures quickly.

"I'm asking all MPs to put aside partisan politics and support this legislation that the great majority of Canadians want," Wamback said.

Costs of longer sentences questioned

By some measures, crime is at a historic low in Canada, and critics have argued tougher measures will hike the cost of the justice system while doing nothing to deter criminals. 

Their arguments don't deter the Tories, who argue that only about 30 per cent of Canadians who were victims of crimes reported those crimes to police.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the John Howard Society of Canada raised their concerns about the bill "bankrupting Canada" at a news conference scheduled half an hour before the bill's unveiling. 

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said parts of the provincial and federal correctional systems are so stuffed they may already violate charter protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

The omnibus bill will only exacerbate the problems and could send correctional costs through the roof, she said.

Corrections Canada estimates the cost of the system will rise to $3 billion this fiscal year from $1.6 billion in 2006 when the Harper Conservatives took power.

"These costs will be borne by the provinces and by taxpayers across the country and we believe that those need to be fully assessed and disclosed," said Latimer.

The government's refusal to disclose the cost of previous justice legislation contributed to the contempt-of-Parliament motion brought forward by the opposition parties last spring.

The government eventually offered documents that suggested 18 proposed measures would cost about $631 million in total. The independent parliamentary budget officer, by contrast, reported that one measure alone would cost the system billions.

Many of the new provisions will increase the number of offenders facing sentences of less than two years, putting more strain on provincial facilities.

On Tuesday, the justice minister again dodged requests for detailed costs associated with the new omnibus legislation, saying instead that crime costs the Canadian economy $99 billion annually.

"Most of that is borne by victims," said the justice minister.

"The people we’ll be taking off the street are people who should be off the street," Nicholson insisted. "There’s a cost when those individuals are out on the street and we’re prepared to meet the cost of detaining those individuals."

Speaking at the news conference in Brampton, Tom Stamatakis from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said his organization is supportive of longer mandatory minimums and stiffer penalties for drug crimes, noting that "if you keep [offenders] in jail longer, you take away the opportunity to traffic in drugs."

Opposition vows to fight on

During previous minority Parliaments, the Conservatives struggled to pass crime measures without support from the Liberals, the NDP or the Bloc Québécois. Previous bills were left sitting on the order paper through several prorogations and dissolutions for general elections. When justice bills did make it to committee or the floor of the House of Commons or Senate, they often received a rough ride. Very few passed, although a few compromises did result in limited progress.

Through it all, the Conservatives made political hay, labelling opposition parties as soft on crime and using these causes as a rallying cry for fundraising and re-election campaign efforts.

On Tuesday, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said "Conservatives are taking us in an ideological direction that has nothing to do with increasing public safety."

"We think that this legislation deserves real public scrutiny, it deserves a real public fight," Rae told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons. "There will be a fight in the House of Commons about it," he vowed.

NDP critic Comartin acknowledged that the omnibus bill does reflect a few amendments made to previous youth offender legislation.

But he echoed concerns about the potential costs of incarcerating so many more people, and the potential burden on provincial jails, which could need to accomodate two-thirds of the 3,000 to 5,000 additional prisoners serving the proposed stiffer drug sentences alone.

Comartin was part of committee hearings that called witnesses to examine the previous bills. "What [Nicholson] didn’t mention was that the evidence generally was overwhelmingly opposed to this legislation," he said. "The reality is crime is going down."

With a Conservative majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate, the new omnibus bill can proceed with a higher likelihood of passing the measures all at once, though there are a number of tactics the opposition can use to attempt to stall or amend the legislation in both the House of Commons or the Senate in the days to come.

In addition to this bill, Nicholson pledged Tuesday that other justice legislation would be introduced soon, including new measures for citizen's arrests.

Later on Tuesday, the justice minister's office also confirmed that the government intends to reintroduce legislation with new measures for Internet surveillance "in due course."
With files from The Canadian Press