Opposition MPs try again to amend crime bill

Debate on the omnibus crime bill resumes in the House of Commons after it cleared the committee stage last week and opposition MPs continue efforts to amend it.
Justice Miniser Rob Nicholson defends his omnibus crime bill in the House of Commons. Debate on the bill at report stage began Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Opposition MPs are not giving up on their attempts to amend the omnibus crime bill as debate resumed in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act is now at the report stage after the justice and human rights committee finished its hearings last week and dealt with it clause by clause. The NDP and Liberals failed at the committee to make any substantive changes to the controversial piece of legislation, which combines nine previous bills, but they will be trying again this week.

NDP justice critic Jack Harris, Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler and Green Party MP Elizabeth May proposed 88 amendments to the bill. Most of them involved deleting clauses from Bill C-10. They are limited in what they can propose because amendments at this stage are only eligible for debate if they have not already been dealt with during the committee.

When debate began Tuesday morning, Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled a number of the amendments ineligible for debate because he said they could have been presented at committee or were defeated there. He divided the remaining amendments into five different groups.

The opposition parties weren't the only ones that tried to change the bill, however. The Conservatives had a number of their own proposals. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews had six amendments, all related to measures in the bill that would allow victims of terrorism to sue perpetrators of terrorism and their supporters. All of the government's amendments were deemed ineligible for debate.

"It's pretty clear that nobody, nobody, no party was satisfied with the bill at second reading, at committee, or here in report stage," Harris said as debate on the first group of amendments began. 

One of his amendments is to remove the name of the bill, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, because he said a number of witnesses at the committee testified that the proposed legislation will not in fact make Canadian streets safer.

He also complained about the bill being rushed through Parliament and said MPs have not been permitted to do their job properly. "Obviously this job is rushed," he said.

Harris said after question period that the government's attempts earlier in the day to amend the bill show that even the Conservatives recognize it is flawed.

"There is so much damage being done by this legislation overall that the next government will have to repair the damage," he said. "It will have to be fixed, no doubt about it."

Conservatives want bill passed before holidays

The Conservatives limited debate on the bill the last time it was in the House of Commons for second reading so that it could move to committee, and the government also moved to limit debate at the committee stage. That move prompted lengthy meetings last week that went late into the night so that the report could be finished and the bill brought back to the House of Commons.

The Conservatives could again choose to limit debate at report stage to get the bill to its third and final reading. 

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson defended the bill in question period and rejected Harris's criticisms that the government is rushing the bill and is incapable of working with the opposition to improve it.

"The honourable member never asks what victims will have to pay if we don't change the laws. The NDP has trouble with going after violent criminals, and child pornographers, and those who molest children … why don't they start attacking violent criminals just to mix it up for a change?" he responded.

Conservative MPs also argued during the debate Tuesday that the bill has been thoroughly debated because it is the culmination of nine bills that have been before Parliament in previous sessions.

"The bill has had a thorough review ... there has been no difficulty at all in understanding what these reforms seek to do," said Kerry-Lynne Findlay, parliamentary secretary to Nicholson, adding that the voices of opposition MPs have been heard.

"Bill C-10 reflects our government's commitment to restoring public confidence in our justice system," she said. Findlay said the amendments proposed by opposition MPs show they don't share that commitment and they are trying to gut the bill.

NDP MP Jean Crowder pointed out in her remarks that there are more than 100 new MPs that were elected in the May election and that undermines the government's argument that MPs have had plenty of opportunities to debate the reforms.

The omnibus crime bill was tabled by Nicholson in September and the Conservatives want it passed before Christmas. It will still need the Senate's approval after it passes the House of Commons, but the Conservatives have a majority there too, and will be able to fend off any proposed amendments and pass it swiftly.

The committee heard from a number of witnesses during its hearings, some expressing concerns about the impact the proposed legislation will have on the courts, the prison system and young offenders. The Safe Streets Act introduces new mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences, which would drive up the prison population and mean increased costs for both the federal and provincial governments. Witnesses said prisons are already overcrowded and the court system overburdened.

Some of the provinces have been vocal in their opposition to the bill, saying they will refuse to carry the burden that would be passed on to them. Quebec's justice minister was among the witnesses and he also had a meeting with Nicholson to try to get him to budge on some of the bill's measures, but he left Ottawa disappointed.

The committee also heard from victims of crime who thanked the Conservative government for the bill, and some of its measures also have support from police organizations.

The bill seeks amendments to a number of existing laws including the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act, drug laws, and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. It increases penalties for sexual offences against children, introduces new mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and increases penalties for marijuana production, makes some offences ineligible for pardons, and changes the rules for sentencing for youth, and the publication of their names.

During debate Tuesday, Liberal MP John McCallum talked about the negative social costs and the fiscal costs associated with the bill. He said it will lead to more victims of crime because offenders, particularly young ones, who go into prison for minor crimes will learn tools of the trade while in jail, come out as a harder criminal and re-offend.

He also said the opposition has demanded for months to know detailed costs for the Conservatives' crime agenda and has only received "empty rhetoric."

"We have a right to know the costs of the legislation that we are asked to support," he said.

Conservative MP Brian Jean said the cost of crime to victims is what the opposition should focus on and that the bill's name is entirely appropriate because the justice reforms will mean safer communities.

Protesters against the bill rallied over the weekend in Ottawa, Montreal and other cities, and groups were on Parliament Hill again Monday to voice their opposition.

Michael Spratt from the Criminal Lawyers' Association said at a news conference with Elizabeth May that the bill takes authority away from judges, who he said are best positioned to impose fair and just sentences.

"Bill C-10, through the use of mandatory minimum sentences, erodes that discretion and weakens one of the fundamental pillars of our justice system," Spratt said, adding that the sentences do little to make communities safer and limit rehabilitation.

Kim Pate, of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the bill signals a change in Canadian values, and asked MPs and Senators to delay its implementation.

"We see now more than ever we must resist the rush to judgment, the rush to punish, as a way to pretend that we are trying to address and prevent victimization," she said.

'Prisons are not treatment centres'

Women and people with mental-health conditions are a fast-growing part of the prison population, said Pate, and "we know that prisons are not treatment centres."

She said Canadians' tax dollars would be better spent on social services, education, fair wages and other services that would help prevent people from falling into lives of crime.

May said she believes there are Conservative MPs who have reservations about the bill, and hopes they will support her amendments.

She said it's highly unusual for a government to reject all proposed amendments that are meant to try to improve a bill as it moves through the process.

"The Stephen Harper government regards its legislation as some sort of political game," she said.

"As a member of this Parliament, I've seen many bills pushed down our throats over the last few weeks but actually none as egregious as this bill, the omnibus crime bill, which will change our criminal justice system to one that is less compassionate, more expensive and less effective at protecting Canadians from crime," said May.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was at the justice committee Tuesday, testifying on the government's supplementary estimates.