Crime Bill Returns To Commons With Senate Amendments

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The government's omnibus crime bill was back in the House of Commons Tuesday after it was amended last week in the Senate and it could be one day away from becoming law.

Members of Parliament debated Bill C-10 — the safe streets and communities act — but NDP MP Jack Harris dominated most of the time allotted by talking about the bill for more than two hours.

Debate will continue Wednesday afternoon and Harris indicated he would be prepared to keep talking, but told reporters he wasn't sure how long he would continue his speech.

Late Tuesday, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan gave notice of a time allocation motion to limit further debate on this final step for the legislation. That motion could be debated and pass Wednesday afternoon.

A vote on the bill could be held Wednesday evening, subject to the success of the government's effort to limit debate.

If the time allocation motion passes, it will be the third time the government has used such a motion to speed passage of this legislation in the House of Commons. In addition, the government stepped in to limit debate during the justice committee's review of the bill.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson had opened debate on the bill by saying Canada needs legislation that is responsive to what is happening on the country's streets and meets Canadians' expectations.

"It's our job as parliamentarians to deal with criminals, to protect society and do whatever we can to deter crime," he said.

Child pornography warrants lengthy and serious sentences, he said, and Canadians are also concerned about the drug trade.

"No Canadian wants to live next door to a grow-op," said Nicholson.

The justice minister went on to justify all of the bill's measures and said the reforms send a message to criminals that they will be held accountable for their actions.

The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, as expected, amended the part of the bill that allows Canadians to sue perpetrators of terrorism, and their supporters, in Canadian courts.

Controversial amendments

The six amendments have been a source of some controversy because Liberal MP Irwin Cotler tried to propose similar ones when the bill was before the House of Commons justice committee. The Conservatives voted against the amendments and then tried to introduce virtually the same ones under their own name at the next stage of the bill.

The Conservatives found themselves accused of rejecting the amendments purely for partisan purposes. They voted against all amendments proposed by the Liberals and NDP.

The government was not allowed to introduce the terrorism-related amendments at the report stage, according to procedural rules, and instead had to bring them in when the bill landed in the Senate.

The bill as originally drafted allowed Canadians to sue proxy groups for terrorism, but not states themselves. That was changed in order to allow states to be held responsible. Other tweaks to language were also made.

Cotler said in a statement Tuesday that while he is glad the government adopted the terrorism-related measures, the bill is still a poor one.

The Liberals said the bill repeats the mistakes of "discredited American crime policy" because of the mandatory minimum sentences while straining federal-provincial relations.

"At the end of the day, C-10 will give us more crime and less justice, and at increased cost to taxpayers," said Cotler.

The NDP also expressed its opposition to the safe streets act, calling it a "wrong-headed" approach to justice.

Senate urges alternative treatment options

The Senate report on the bill contained a number of recommendations based on testimony the committee heard from a range of witnesses. It said a consistent concern related to the challenges faced by the corrections system in dealing with offenders with mental illnesses.

The senators urged the government to consider alternative treatment options, particularly for female offenders who have a higher incidence of mental illness than male offenders. They also want attention paid to the over-representation of aboriginal Canadians in the justice system, both as offenders and victims.

The omnibus crime bill has nine major components to it that combined bills from previous sessions in Parliament that never passed. It makes significant changes to the justice and corrections systems, including the introduction of new mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, increasing maximum penalties for certain offences, restricting the use of conditional sentences, and changes to the youth criminal justice system.

The reforms are expected to increase the number of people behind bars. The provinces have balked at paying for the added costs for a federal piece of legislation.

The government has said the price tag for the legislation is worthwhile because the cost of crime to society exceeds the cost of enforcing the laws.

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