Omnibus Crime Bill: Quebec Says It Will Work To Soften New Legislation

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MONTREAL - Quebec's vigorous opposition of the Harper government's freshly adopted crime legislation entered a new phase Tuesday as the province pledged to minimize the bill's impact on its soil.

The Quebec government, already angered by the legislation's potential cost to the provinces, announced that it would do everything in its power to limit the clout of the sweeping bill that passed a day earlier.

Because the provinces are responsible for applying the laws passed in Ottawa, Quebec's justice minister said he can hand judges and prosecutors instructions that would soften the impact of Bill C-10 — particularly when it comes to youth offenders.

Under the plan, provincial officials said they will ask that a young offender's name only be made public in exceptional circumstances; relieve prosecutors of the obligation to demand an adult sentence for someone under 16; and create a program to treat drug addicts instead of imprisoning them.

Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said the moves emphasize the importance of rehabilitating, re-educating and reintegrating young offenders and is based on a philosophy outlined in a 2008 Supreme Court of Canada decision.

"It's not just about putting people in prison," Fournier told a news conference Tuesday inside a courtroom at Montreal's youth courthouse.

"At some point, the door will open. What will happen?"

Fournier said the measures are not part of a plan to abolish C-10, but to preserve what he describes as decades of evidence about successful practices.

"C-10 is a law, but we've also got laws in Quebec," said Fournier, who supports several provisions in the crime bill. "We can make them work together."

One example of where Quebec has wiggle room under C-10 is a requirement that prosecutors notify the court when they're seeking an adult sentence for an offender between the ages of 14 and 16. Fournier says he will ensure the minimum age in Quebec for this provision is set at 16. The province will also create a judicial drug-treatment program to help rehabilitate addicts.

Fournier said the directives follow a 2008 Supreme Court decision that addressed how to approach cases involving juveniles.

In its decision, the court said: "...young people have heightened vulnerability, less maturity and a reduced capacity for moral judgment. This entitles them to a presumption of diminished moral blameworthiness or culpability."

The federal legislation, passed Monday in the House of Commons, has also faced opposition from provinces concerned that they will be saddled with its high costs.

Some provinces, including Quebec, say Ottawa should be responsible for paying for the new jail spaces that will be required as a result of the legislation. Quebec pegs the costs at $750 million for new prisons, and at up to $80 million a year for application of the new rules.

Fournier reiterated this position Tuesday.

"It's not for Quebec to finance the costs of an initiative from a federal government that refused to collaborate with provinces on the content of the legislation," he said. "The federal government can't hide its head in the sand and deny that some provinces will at least need to build more prisons, which takes time and money."

The new federal legislation increases sentences for drug and sex offences, reduces the use of conditional sentences like house arrest, provides harsher penalties on young offenders, makes it harder to get a pardon, gives crime victims more say in parole hearings and allows victims of terrorism to sue.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson brushed off questions about Quebec's intention to minimize the impact of the omnibus crime bill within its borders.

Without addressing Fournier's plan specifically, he said the provisions of the bill are meant to help people everywhere in Canada.

"The problems of people sexually exploiting children is national, it's not confined to nine provinces," Nicholson said Tuesday in Ottawa. "All provinces have problems with people who sexually exploit children and all provinces have people bringing drugs into the country."

Meanwhile, the provincial government in Quebec is taking heat from its separatist opposition for not being tough enough with the feds.

The Parti Quebecois says the recent crime debate proves that, in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Canada, the province's concerns are ignored. It calls the federalist Charest government too weak-kneed and timid before Ottawa to get any results.

It's a theme the PQ will certainly emphasize in the next provincial election, which could happen anytime from this spring to late 2013.

"We no longer exist for them. Quebec no longer exists for Ottawa," said PQ critic Bernard Drainville.

"The retrograde agenda of Stephen Harper's Canada has passed another step."

While some provincial governments have been vocal critics of the crime bill, others have thrown their support behind it despite the extra costs.

Saskatchewan's justice minister and attorney general said the province is trying to find ways to increase the capacity of its already packed prisons because the legislation will put more people behind bars.

"This is certainly not something that is going to make it easier for us to deal with," Don Morgan said Tuesday.

"But having said that, the people that we want to see incarcerated are the dangerous offenders that prey on our society."

- With files from Jennifer Graham in Regina.

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