OTTAWA - Media reports that some pot growers will face harsher mandatory-minimum sentences than child rapists under the Conservative government's new crime bill were enough to catch the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A request by The Canadian Press for cabinet records on the controversial omnibus crime legislation turned up a single document — much of it blacked out under a broad, discretionary exemption in the Access to Information Act.
The Oct. 11, 2011, "memorandum for the prime minister" says its purpose was to inform Harper about the controversial sentencing provisions "in light of recent criticism in the media."
And the memo, marked "secret," ends by stating that "additional analysis would be required if potential amendment proposals are deemed needed."
Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill, is currently being studied by the Conservative-dominated Senate, where Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has confirmed some flaws will be corrected.
But those government amendments relate to specific measures on suing state sponsors of terrorism. There is no indication the government is open to altering the bill's mandatory minimums.
Asked whether there are any amendments to Bill C-10's sentencing provisions, Nicholson's office responded by email: "This new legislation ensures any form of child sexual abuse will mean jail time."
About half the one-page memorandum to Harper obtained under the access law is blacked out using sweeping exemptions that cover "advice or recommendations" and "an account of consultations or deliberations."
After the redacted paragraphs, the briefing note resumes with a point that Nicholson made last week at Senate hearings into the crime bill: "The maximum penalty for serious drug offences under Bill C-10 is comparable to that for child sexual assault."
The memorandum followed two weeks of media reports sparked when a Vancouver Province columnist highlighted a little-noticed oddity in the massive Conservative crime bill, which combines nine separate pieces of legislation.
In his column, Ethan Baron wrote that under the new law, someone convicted of "growing 201 pot plants in a rental unit would receive a longer mandatory sentence than someone who rapes a toddler or forces a five-year-old to have sex with an animal."
The column also noted that the six-month mandatory minimum for growing as few as six marijuana plants for the purpose of trafficking is twice the minimum sentence for luring a child to watch pornography or exposing oneself on a playground.
As Senate hearings on Bill C-10 opened last week on Parliament Hill, the first question Nicholson faced at the committee hearing concerned the disparity between minimum sentences for pot growers and pedophiles.
"What's the underlying principle that determines the length of those mandatory minimums?" asked Liberal Sen. Joan Fraser.
Nicholson did not provide a direct response.
"It's important to point out that there's a wide range of discretion that is given to the court to have a look at this, to gauge the seriousness of the individual crime — and again, all of these are despicable," said the minister.
Fraser pressed him on whether there exists "a formula, a grid, a set of guidelines to establish what mandatory minimums would be appropriate in different circumstances?"
"It seems to me that any sexual offence against a child is more serious than growing six pot plants," added Fraser.
Again, rather than responding directly, Nicholson told Fraser that drug traffickers are "people who are in the business of destroying other people's lives — and I think we send a very clear message that this will not be tolerated."
While rejigging the bill's mandatory minimums appears to be a non-starter, the Senate will make changes to close loopholes in the terrorism provisions that were exposed by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews attempted to have those amendments adopted in late November after the bill had left the House of Commons justice committee, but was ruled out of order by the Speaker.
The Oct. 11 briefing note for Harper noted that Bill C-10 had already gone to the justice committee, and that clause-by-clause examination — the time when MPs are supposed to find flaws and anomalies in legislation, and fix them — would begin in mid-November.
"Given the scope of the bill and the large number of offences included (i.e., 18 child-specific sexual offences), additional analysis would be required if potential amendment proposals are deemed needed," said the memo to Harper.
Instead, the bill was rushed through the Commons justice committee unchanged and on to a speedy vote in the House, where the Conservative majority passed it Dec. 5 — leaving it to appointed Senators to fix any flaws.