Premiers urge speedy action on crime, but justice minister warns there's no easy fix

Justice Minister David Lametti says he intends to introduce bail reform legislation this spring, but it's only part of a complex solution to the problem of violent crime.

Attacks on transit riders and police officers have Canadians alarmed

Justice Minister David Lametti is pictured at a news conference.
Justice Minister David Lametti speaks during a federal-provincial meeting on bail reform in Ottawa, on Friday, March 10, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Justice Minister David Lametti says he intends to stick to his promise to introduce bail reform legislation this spring, as pressure mounts from provinces reacting to a spate of high-profile violent attacks across the country.

In an interview on CBC's The House airing Saturday, Lametti said he believes the legislation will pass "expeditiously." He also noted the level of unanimity among provincial governments across the political spectrum calling for changes to the way courts decide whether accused persons are detained before trial or released.

Current bail rules have been under fire in recent months, particularly since the alleged murder of an Ontario police officer by a man who was out on bail facing charges that include assaulting a police officer. After sending one letter in February, premiers wrote again to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday to push him to introduce legislation.

While Lametti told host Catherine Cullen he's confident of the level of support any new legislation would get, bail reform is far from the only factor behind the complex problem of violent crime in Canada. A crisis in mental health, he said, is the main driver and requires a more cooperative approach.

Communities across Canada have faced a wave of violent attacks in recent months, including on public transit and against police officers. Provincial leaders and Conservative politicians are demanding changes to bail rules — but can the government move fast enough to make a difference? Justice Minister David Lametti sits down with Catherine Cullen to discuss.

"This is not something that that I can fix with a tweak to the Criminal Code," Lametti said. "It is possibly part of the solution ... I'm always open to those kinds of solutions. But this is something that we need to attack as a society."

Certain categories of violent crime, such as sexual assault, increased in frequency during the pandemic (full data is available from Statistics Canada only up to 2021). The overall level of violent crime increased by five per cent during the pandemic. StatsCan's measurement of violent crime has risen since 2014 after a long decline.

But the recent attacks — which include eight police officers killed in six months and a string of assaults on public transit — have pushed the issue of violent crime to the forefront of political discourse. The Toronto Transit Commission reported more offences committed against riders in 2020 than in 2019, despite a dramatic decrease in ridership during the pandemic.

The Conservative opposition in Ottawa has argued the current bail system is reckless.

"[Trudeau] has implemented catch and release policies that allow the most prolific and violent offenders to go back on the street again and again and again," Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in February.

Lametti said Saturday that while improvements can be made, the Canadian system still works well.

"You do have a right to get bail. It is a charter-protected right ... The base presumption is that everybody is entitled to bail if they are not a threat to public safety," he said.

Provinces call for stricter rules

Provinces have called for reforms that include the creation of a "reverse onus" for some offences, particularly firearms offences. Canadians have a right to bail unless there are compelling reasons to deny it, and it's up to prosecutors to prove that they should not receive bail.

Under a "reverse onus" rule, however, accused persons would have to prove there is no just cause for their detention.

A reverse onus condition already exists in Canada for violent crimes, such as murder.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during an announcement and news conference, in New Westminster, B.C., on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has called on the government to repeal bail reforms passed in 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

The Conservatives also have linked rising crime to the passage of Bill C-75 — a 2018 package of reforms that codified a "principle of restraint" that was supported by a 2017 Supreme Court case emphasizing the need to release people at the "earliest reasonable opportunity" and "on the least onerous conditions," based on the circumstances of the case.

C-75 also gave police more power to place conditions on accused individuals to streamline the bail process and reduce the number of court appearances.

Some University of Ottawa experts argued in February that people out on bail rarely breach their conditions — and only very rarely in violent ways. They warned that bail reform might put more people into dangerous positions in jails, potentially leading to death.

Lametti argued C-75 was not connected to a recent uptick in attacks.

"I don't think the legislation made it worse," he said.

Lametti said a distinction needs to be made between repeat offenders who engage in non-violent crime and repeat violent offenders.

"That's what I'm worried about ... Certainly there are other things that are being exacerbated by a mental health crisis. We need to work on that too," he said. "But the response there isn't necessarily a Criminal Code amendment."


Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

With files from Catherine Cullen, Jennifer Chevalier, Kristen Everson and John Paul Tasker