Liberals propose Quebec's changes to crime bill

Federal Liberals said Wednesday they're working with Quebec to bring forward the province's suggested amendments to the omnibus crime legislation.

Quebec justice minister proposed three amendments Tuesday, and Liberal MP Cotler is championing them at committee reviewing omnibus crime legislation

Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier explains the province's proposed amendments to the federal omnibus crime bill at the National Assembly in Quebec Tuesday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Federal-provincial tensions over the Harper government's omnibus crime bill were raised a notch Wednesday, as federal Liberals said they'll be championing the amendments proposed Tuesday by Quebec's justice minister.

"This is a very important moment in the life of the federation, where it's important that the federal government understand that it needs to listen to those who have direct experience with on the ground," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said after his caucus meeting, suggesting the Harper government's failure to listen to the concerns raised by provincial premiers about the bill shows a "lack of respect" for the provinces.

"We think it's important those issues be clearly put before the committee," Rae said. "And we remain deeply disappointed in the continuing ideological track that's being taken by Mr. Harper and his colleagues."

On Tuesday, Quebec's justice minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, proposed three changes to the parts of bill C-10 that concern young offenders. He said he was sending Quebec's suggested amendments to many MPs and Senators.

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler said Wednesday that Fournier's amendments will be among the 50 he proposes during the justice committee's review of the legislation, currently underway.

Cotler, a former federal justice minister, said he's in regular contact with Fournier and is listening to the Quebec government's concerns, unlike the current federal justice minister.

Fournier testified before the committee on Nov. 1 and urged the government then to reconsider its approach.

A justice department spokesperson said Wednesday the government has been responsive to requests for criminal code amendments from the provinces, such as ending the two-for-one sentencing credit for time served before trial.

"We have listened to Minister Fournier's concerns regarding the Youth Criminal Justice Act and have made a number of updates prior to announcing the Safe Streets and Communities Act," said Julie Di Mambro in an email to CBC News. "We remain mindful of Quebec's recent concerns and (Wednesday), we put forward an amendment in response."

Di Mambro said the amendment accepted by the government was to change the wording of the bill's Declaration of Principle (Clause 168) so it reads that judges will be asked to "favour" or "facilitate" ("favoriser") rehabilition in sentencing, rather than "encouraging" ("encourager").

Soft or smart on crime?

Quebec Conservative Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu accused Fournier and the Quebec government Wednesday of being "soft on crime," something Rae dismissed as "ridiculous."

It's not about being hard or soft on crime, it's about being smart on crime, Rae suggested in French.

Boisvenu told reporters that victims groups had asked for the kind of changes the legislation would make, saying the government wants "to send a strong message to those kids that killing a person is not stealing [from] a depanneur," (a Quebec convenience store).

"It is very difficult to change things in Quebec," Boisvenu said.

Several provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, have protested the potential cost of the bill, which proposes incarcerating more offenders for longer periods of time, thus dramatically increasing provincial jail costs.

Quebec would also like the treatment of young offenders to focus more on rehabilitation than time in jail, an approach that has proven successful in Quebec in the past.

Fournier wants Quebec to have the right to opt out of provisions that could require the province to reveal the identity of up to 6,000 young offenders, saying the stigma could stick with a young offender for life.

Boisvenu suggested to reporters in Ottawa Wednesday that Fournier was getting bad advice and bad information from his advisors, and the 6,000 figure was not correct.

"We're talking about 150 [young offenders being named]. There's a lot of difference," Boisvenu said.

More suggested amendments on the bill's treatment of adult offenders may be coming from Quebec this week, Fournier suggested Tuesday.