11/16/2011 02:47 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

Crime Bill: Liberals Take Quebec's Side As Battle Over Legislation Escalates


OTTAWA - The war of words between Ottawa and Quebec over federal tough-on-crime legislation heated up Wednesday.

Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, one of the Harper government's official spokesmen on its massive, omnibus crime bill, accused Quebec of being "soft on crime."

He dismissed amendments proposed by Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier to soften penalties for young offenders, suggesting Fournier hasn't read Bill C-10 and doesn't know what he's talking about.

"I think Quebec is soft on crime," Boisvenu said. "We have this tendency in Quebec, I hear this debate just about everywhere, as soon as we want to question the system, it's very difficult to do it."

However, the Liberals signalled they will champion Quebec's concerns, adopting Fournier's proposed amendments as their own.

"We do so because we think it's extremely important that the federal government listen to the experience of the government of Quebec in the area particularly of the treatment of juvenile offenders," said interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.

Quebec boasts that its emphasis on rehabilitation has produced the best record in Canada in dealing with young offenders. Juvenile crime in the province has decreased while it has jumped in every other province.

Rae added that Ottawa "should be listening to all the provinces," many of which object to the fact that they're expected to pay the increased prison costs that will result from C-10's imposition of mandatory minimum sentences.

Rae dismissed Boisvenu's soft-on-crime barb as "ridiculous." He said meting out justice shouldn't be a matter of being soft or tough on crime, but of being "intelligent on crime." And he said that means listening to provinces which have "direct experience" in administering the justice system.

Fournier last week warned a Commons committee that Quebec will refuse to pay for the extra prison costs that will result from C-10. And on Tuesday he proposed amendments to provisions dealing with young offenders.

Those amendments would shift the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation and allow provinces to opt out of a provision enabling the identification of young offenders.

Despite its talk about preferring rehabilitation, Boisvenu charged that Quebec has actually cut most of its rehab programs in provincial jails. He also accused the province of not even bothering to look for, much less apprehend, online sexual predators.

Boisvenu further accused Fournier of misrepresenting the young offender provisions of C-10. He said the measures will only effect the tiny minority of young offenders who commit the most serious crimes, like murder.

In Quebec City, Fournier said he was "simply disappointed" in the Harper government's response to his proposed amendments. He challenged the government to produce scientific evidence that its tough-on-crime approach actually works or will be any comfort to victims of crime.

"Show us one study that says it would be good for victims," said Fournier.

While the Liberals swiftly picked up Fournier's proposals and ran with them, federal New Democrats seemed nervous about appearing to be a megaphone for the Quebec government, notwithstanding that the NDP holds 59 of Quebec's 75 seats.

On Tuesday, Montreal MP Alexandre Boulerice said it's not the NDP's job to automatically transmit Quebec's proposals in Ottawa. He repeated that Wednesday but added, in the case of C-10, that the NDP agrees with Fournier's proposals.

Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel said her party has been working with the Quebec government on C-10 and is putting forward its own amendments. She said the NDP supports Quebec's concerns about additional prison costs but didn't specifically offer support for Fournier's amendments.

And she declined several times to comment on Boisvenu's characterization of the province as soft on crime.

"Ask him the question," she said at one point. "We, I want to talk about our own position."

Later Wednesday, Quebec MP Francoise Boivin clarified that the NDP supports Fournier's proposals, which she said have already been incorporated into the party's own amendments.

Rae — who is widely seen to have outmanoeuvred the NDP earlier this month in raising objections to the appointment of an auditor general who speaks no French — was not at all shy about taking up Quebec's cause on the crime bill.

"I frankly don't really care how rare it is," Rae said. "We remain deeply, deeply disappointed in the continuing ideological track that's being taken by Mr. (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper and his colleagues."

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