02/01/2012 02:06 EST | Updated 04/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Omnibus Crime Bill: Senate Begins Hearings On Legislation Tories Say Needs Amendments


OTTAWA - The Conservative government's massive new crime bill is getting a sober second look from the Senate, and the controversial legislation is expected to see government-sponsored changes.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews testified Wednesday to kick off 11 days of public hearings, which under normal circumstances would get a rubber stamp from the Tory-dominated Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs.

"Canadians deserve to feel safe in their homes and that means violent criminals need to be off the streets," Nicholson told the committee.

But in the Harper majority's haste to push the crime bill through Parliament last fall, some specific flaws were overlooked by the House of Commons committee charged with examining the legislation in detail.

Liberal Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister, had repeatedly pointed out ways to broaden the bill so that terrorism victims and their families could sue state sponsors of terror.

Late last November, Toews ended up attempting to introduce similar changes after Conservative MPs on the committee doing a clause-by-clause review repeatedly voted down the Liberal proposals.

But the Speaker ruled that Toews' amendments should have been made at committee, leaving it to the Senate to mop up the mess.

Nicholson confirmed Wednesday that the Senate will be asked to make amendments on the terrorism aspect of the bill.

But it's not likely other more contentious parts of the legislation will change, despite some extremely pointed questions from Liberal senators Wednesday.

The government's omnibus Bill C-10 combines nine different pieces of legislation covering a wide range of issues.

In addition to new provisions for victims of terrorism, the bill creates new mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and child sex crimes, sharply reduces the use of house arrest, toughens the treatment of young offenders and those seeking criminal pardons, and gives the government new discretion on handling the cases of Canadians jailed outside the country.

Joan Fraser, the Liberal vice-chairman of the Senate committee, questioned why the new bill provides longer mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking in as few as six marijuana plants than for some child molestation crimes.

"It seems to me that any sex offence against a child is more serious than growing six pot plants," Fraser told Nicholson.

The minister failed to explain how the government came up with the differing mandatory minimums, but did suggest that drug traffickers are "in the business of destroying people's lives."

George Baker, another Liberal senator, said the bill as written could convict him of trafficking for offering Nicholson — who was clearly labouring with a bad cold — a prescription medicine with codeine.

"Where is the fail-safe here?" asked Baker.

"Are we expecting the police not to prosecute when the trafficking is of a relatively minor nature? Trafficking is trafficking."

Nicholson responded that each case has its own set of facts, suggesting "there must be a substantive amount" of drugs involved.

Nonetheless, he told Baker: "I would suggest to you if you've got pills with codeine, you be very careful with those."

The Conservatives promised in last spring's election to pass the massive crime bill within 100 sitting days of Parliament, a self-imposed deadline that gives them until mid-March to make good.

Debate was limited in the Commons last fall and the committee examining the bill raced through its work.

"They didn't listen to experts, they didn't listen to people who knew about the flaws and the problems with the bill," MP Jack Harris, the party's justice critic, said Wednesday.

"Now they're in the Senate trying to patch together the bill. They're still not listening to reason when it comes to their approach to criminal justice and we're still going to get a flawed bill when it's all over."

Critics of the bill cite falling crime rates and say the cost of increased incarceration will be enormous, while rehabilitation and reintegration of convicts falls through the cracks.

The government believes tougher laws will further protect Canadians and hold criminals accountable. Toews noted Wednesday that, under changes enacted to date, the number of people in jail has not climbed as quickly as critics had predicted.

"I think it's really a justification of the philosophy we're putting forward, which is that we're not creating new criminals," said Toews.

"We're simply keeping the guys who are always back out on the street, pressuring the system, the police, the courts ... these guys are staying in."

The issue of victims suing perpetrators of terror has been on the legislative radar for years.

Cotler, as justice minister, had a bill dealing with the issue on the order paper in 2006, shortly before the Liberal government fell.

"One of my first actions was to go to the then minister of public security Stockwell Day and say to him, 'Stockwell, here's a bill that I would have presented had we not lost the election. I'd like your government to now take it up,'" Cotler recounted last fall.

He has directly lobbied Toews to make the changes.

"For the first time in our history, victims of terror will have a civil remedy against their terrorist perpetrators," Cotler said in November.

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