4 political legacies of the omnibus crime bill

Passage of the Harper government's omnibus crime legislation tonight will come after months of bruising partisan combat, leaving political scars to last long after new measures become law.

Few bills were more acrimonious than C-10, which is set to pass despite partisan scars

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, seen here speaking to reporters in November, took plenty of heat over the Harper government's omnibus crime legislation, but never gave in. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Harper government nicknamed C-10 "the safe streets and communities act."

But the road to passage of the omnibus crime legislation was a long and winding one that strayed far from safe political ground.

A final vote, expected Monday around 8 p.m. ET, and then royal assent come after months of bruising partisan combat, leaving political scars to last long after new measures become law.

Here's a look at four legacies of C-10.

Hurry-up offence

Years of minority government thwarted the Conservatives' desire to bring in new, tough crime measures. Much of what Liberals or New Democrats would swallow was bundled together with other measures they couldn't stomach.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, seen in the House of Commons last month, moved time allocation on three separate occasions to speed passage of C-10. Debate was also limited at the Commons justice committee. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

By the time the Conservatives were preparing for last spring's election, the list of unpassed justice measures took up an entire page in their platform book. The pitch? "A Stephen Harper-led majority Government will bundle these bills into comprehensive legislation, and pass them within the new Parliament's first 100 sitting days."

From the start, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan didn't hesitate to reach for his procedural hammer at any sign of opposition tactics to delay or split the bill in the new majority Parliament.

As the bill reaches its final vote, the government now has moved time allocation motions three times in the Commons and a fourth during the justice committee's review.

March 12, Van Loan noted in the House last week, will be the 94th sitting day.

As controversial as it is for the government to limit debate on complicated legislation, it appears the bill could not have met the Tories' deadline without time allocation.

Opposition filibuster tactics, such as a marathon speech from the NDP's Jack Harris, were evident even during last week's final debate to concur with amendments portrayed by the government as having "all-party" support.

Tactics previously seen as a government's last resort have become the first line of defence.

Provincial pushback

Premier Dalton McGuinty believes Ontario's pricetag for C-10 could add up to $1 billion in new prison costs alone.  Canada's largest province wants to erase a $16 billion deficit from its books.

Quebec justice minister Jean-Marc Fournier tried but failed to get the federal government to amend the omnibus crime bill to address his province's concerns. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier Jean Charest shares the concerns about costs (estimated at $500 million for Quebec), but doesn't stop there. His justice minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, made two trips to Ottawa to fight the bill last November on both fiscal and policy grounds. Quebec has hinted it may refuse to pay for or enforce C-10's provisions.

Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Nunavut also expressed concern over the bill's costs. 

Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have been more supportive of the bill's goals but will still have to deal with higher jail costs.

Courts too will face additional case loads, if plea bargains and other deals become more rare in the face of mandatory minimum sentences. In B.C., four former attorneys general have spoken out against the provisions for a justice system choked by clogged courtrooms.

If provinces fail to enforce or fund the changes they oppose, or if some are ill-equipped to manage the additional demands, will different tiers of justice emerge across provincial jurisdictions?

Court challenge

Even as C-10 becomes law, the debate over mandatory minimum sentences continues in the courts.

An Ontario Superior Court judge in February refused to apply a mandatory minimum sentence for a weapons offence. An appeal is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court for final judgment.

Legal experts have speculated this could be only the first instance of a judge refusing to apply a minimum standard set by politicians.

If the Supreme Court is called on for a final verdict on the fairness and legality of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, C-10's provisions will be tested.

Opposition MPs spoke in the Commons last week of their reservations about passing measures that may be found unconstitutional.

The 'Cotler' amendments

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler proposed a whole list of amendments to C-10 during the justice committee's review. But six amendments in particular tell a partisan tale "as arrogant as it is shocking", to quote Cotler himself during the concurrence debate on March 9.

Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler proposed six amendments to strengthen anti-terrorism measures. Government MPs voted them down in committee, but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews moved them himself a few days later. The amendments were ruled out of order, but were eventually passed by the Senate. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Cotler has fought for a new law to support victims of terrorism since he was justice minister. The Harper government shared this goal, and C-10 included what Cotler wanted.

Nevertheless, he recommended amendments, including six modestly-worded tweaks to strengthen the ability of victims to sue foreign states that supported or directly committed terrorist acts.

The justice committee's review of C-10 last fall was acrimonious, colored with a partisan taint.

Cotler was in the middle of another battle with the Conservatives at the time, over the use of pamphlets and phone calls to damage his reputation in his Montreal riding and further the chances of a Tory rival.

During the committee's clause-by-clause review, Conservative MPs voted against every change proposed by opposition MPs, in an apparent mix of determination (not to budge in the face of criticism) and haste (to pass the bill before Christmas.)

But after the committee voted them down, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews proposed virtually the same amendments at report stage back in the House of Commons. (Tory House Leader Van Loan later insisted to reporters that Cotler's amendments weren't the same as Toews', but his assertions didn't stand up.)

Speaker Andrew Scheer blocked the move, because bills are supposed to be amended at committee.

Cotler met with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Toews the day after Scheer's ruling to discuss their options.

Two days after C-10 passed the Commons without amendments, the Government Leader in the Senate, Marjory Lebreton, changed the government line: suddenly the Conservatives weren't in a hurry to include C-10 among bills the Senate would rush through before Christmas. Time was needed for a careful review of the legislation, she explained.

Reporters knew what that meant: the government wanted those amendments.

Fast-forward to Feb. 27, at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee. Senator Bob Runciman introduced the same amendments Toews (and Cotler before him) had proposed. In fact, as he did so, Nova Scotia Liberal Senator James Cowan made a point of noting for the record they were exactly the same amendments.

The "Cotler amendments" were the only ones to pass in the Senate. Curiously, Conservative Senators were reluctant to disclose to CBC News the exact wording of the successful amendments before the committee reported back, despite the fact they were debated and passed in a public meeting.

On March 7, the day the final vote on C-10 had been planned, the government hosted a press conference with crime victims advocates to trumpet the success they'd soon be tasting.

That same morning, the NDP's Harris began a marathon speech in an apparent effort to filibuster C-10's inevitable passage.

It was a lengthy last stand in the battle over C-10, which comes only to a legislative end Monday night.