The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been trying for years to pass a harsh drug crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for growing as few as six marijuana plants. This year, with the Conservatives now holding an absolute majority in parliament, it looks like the Conservatives will get their wish..
The Tories rolled out this year's version of their perennial drug bill last month as part of an omnibus anti-crime bill known as Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act. Ironically, the government's "tough on crime" initiative came just weeks before Statistics Canada reported that the country's homicide rate had declined to levels not seen since 1966. Overall violent crime is down, too.
The omnibus bill runs to 110 pages and brings together nine separate previous proposals to strengthen police and prosecutorial powers aimed at child sex predators, violent offenders, drug traffickers, and "out of control" youthful offenders. In addition to Canada's first mandatory minimum sentences, the package also includes tougher pre-trial custody conditions, restrictions on the use of probation, and lengthier sentences for violent and youthful repeat offenders.
"Since coming into office, our government has accomplished a great deal when it comes to cracking down on crime and better protecting Canadians," said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson as he introduced the omnibus bill last month. "By moving quickly to reintroduce and pass the Safe Streets and Communities Act, we are fulfilling our promise to Canadians by taking action to protect families, stand up for victims and hold criminals accountable."
"Our government remains committed to fighting crime, protecting Canadians and holding offenders accountable," said Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews. "Canadians gave us a strong mandate to improve safety for Canadians where they live, work and raise their families."
Voters may have given the Tories a mandate at the polls, but it's not clear that it was Tory crime policies driving the vote. A Nanos poll earlier this summer had only 2% of respondents selecting "fighting crime" as their highest priority for the Harper government. Instead, respondents were much more concerned about the provision of health care (40%) and reducing the deficit (26%).
Canada's other major political parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats, both oppose the bill, as does a broad swath of civil society. The Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network are among the groups opposing the bill, as are criminal defense attorneys, prisoners' advocates, and critics who point toward falling crime numbers and question whether the country can afford a massive expansion of its prison system.
The government has so far declined to specify projected costs of the bill or reveal its own projections about how much the prison population would increase under the bill.
"We believe the substance of this legislation both to be self-defeating and counterproductive, if the goal is to enhance public safety," vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association's National Criminal Justice Section Eric Gottardi said last week. "It represents a profound shift in orientation from a system that emphasizes public safety, rehabilitation and reintegration to one that puts vengeance first."
"The Conservatives are completely divorced from the reality of what's going on," said NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies (Vancouver East) during a 10-minute House of Commons speech attacking the bill. "They have branded themselves and wrapped themselves in a cloak of crime and punishment, and as a result they are blind to evidence, they are blind to the costs, they are blind to the fact that we have the lowest crime rate since 1973, they are blind to building safe and healthy communities, they are blind to the horrendous experience of the United States and its war on drugs regime that is now being slowly repealed -- including the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing... because of its catastrophic failure on people and society overall. They are blind to the evidence here in Canada and they are blind to the real impacts of what these bills will have on the lives of people and on communities overall."
The Tories are "only interested in manipulating people, creating fear, division, and creating a 'them and us' scenario," Davies continued. "I believe from the bottom of my heart that this omnibus bill is offensive because it is politically motivated and will have enormous negative impacts."
It's not just progressives, or even Canadians, who are upset by the bill. Crime-fighting conservative Texans have come out against it, citing their own unhappy experience with "lock 'em up and throw away the key" policies. "You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up," said Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court. "And there will come a point in time where the public says, 'Enough!' And you'll wind up letting them out."
Still, with the Conservatives holding a solid parliamentary majority, the bill's passage now appears to be all but a done deal. That doesn't mean the fight against it will go away, though -- not before it passes and not after it passes. The lawyers are already gearing up for that second phase of the struggle.
"They are trying to ram this through as quickly as possible, and I don't know what can be done to stop it," said Oscapella. "It will have to be done at the back end, by means of constitutional challenges under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But that will take years."