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Nunavut justice minister denounces Tory crime bill

Image from inside the Toronto Jail on Feb. 24, 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Conservative government's massive new crime bill runs counter to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on aboriginal justice, Nunavut's justice minister said Thursday.

New mandatory minimum sentences will overburden the territory's courts and corrections system and fly in the face of Criminal Code provisions on the treatment of aboriginal offenders, Daniel Shewchuk told the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee.

"The government of Nunavut believes that taking away discretion from judges is not the right approach."

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Mr. Shewchuk noted that the Supreme Court recognized restorative justice principles in the 1999 Gladue decision, which addressed the over-representation of aboriginal Canadians in prisons.

The omnibus Bill C-10 combines nine different pieces of legislation, covering everything from drug and sex crimes to young offenders, criminal pardons and the issue of Canadians jailed abroad.

It was rushed through the House of Commons last fall, but now faces renewed scrutiny in the Conservative-dominated Senate. The Harper government belatedly recognized that some amendments are required to fix flaws in the legislation.

Those flaws, however, are specific to one aspect of the sprawling bill that deals with suing state sponsors of terrorism.

But critics continue to pound away at the overall Conservative "tough on crime" emphasis.

"Bill C-10 will divert the financial resources we require to address the root causes of criminal behaviour and to fund rehabilitation programs to support a punishment model that will add further stress to our already over-burdened corrections infrastructure and our courts," Mr. Shewchuk testified.

While Mr. Shewchuk denounced the bill, the president of the Canadian Police Association testified that his membership supports it.

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"We need stronger intervention that combines general deterrence, specific deterrence, denunciation and reform," Tom Stamatakis told the committee.

However Mr. Stamatakis did bolster one aspect of the argument being made by Nunavut — along with Ontario and Quebec and some maritime provinces — that the crime bill will create significant new costs.

He said police budgets are already "close to the breaking point."

"On behalf of my members, let me be clear that this legislation represents part of the cost of doing business for law enforcement and we hope that the federal government and their provincial partners can quickly come to an agreement on how to best address the funding concerns without any delays," said Mr. Stamatakis.

The police representative also managed to highlight Mr. Shewchuk's argument on the need for judicial discretion, albeit indirectly.

Liberal senators have spent the first two of 11 days of hearings repeatedly questioning the crime bill's stiff mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of growing as few as six marijuana plants.

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Mr. Stamatakis called the six-plant provision "a bit of a red herring."

"The other reality is that police officers' every day use their discretion in terms of what you're going to enforce and what you're not going to enforce," he told Sen. Serge Joyal.

Conservative Sen. Linda Frum questioned Mr. Shewchuk on Nunavut's opposition to new mandatory minimums for crimes that involve sex offences against minors.

"Knowing that there must be very high rates of sexual assault in your community, I don't understand why these mandatory minimums in that area are so troublesome to you," said Ms. Frum.

Mr. Shewchuk responded that victims have to be respected and sexual offenders need to be punished, but added that the Inuit have a unique tradition of community-based, restorative justice.

"The victims also want to be part of the sentencing system too," said the territorial justice minister. "I think you need to understand — and even I don't understand it — the societal values of Inuit and the way they deal with justice."

The committee plans to hear from 110 witnesses in its examination of the crime bill.

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