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Rob Nicholson is still top gun in Harper's fight against crime

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Rob Nicholson, Senate leader Majory LeBreton, Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay and Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews (left to right) applaud as Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives for the swearing-in ceremony for the new federal cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Wednesday May 18, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

He watched in frustration as one crime bill after another was derailed by opposition parties and a recalcitrant Senate, but Justice Minister Rob Nicholson now has the weapons he needs to fight his war against crime largely unopposed.

One of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most active ministers, Mr. Nicholson returns to his portfolio ready to toughen up laws against drug use, guns, white-collar fraud, the sexual exploitation of children and criminal trials that balloon out of control.

His agenda also includes implementing annual drug testing for all federal inmates, a proposal to make elder abuse an aggravating factor on sentencing, and restrictions on the use of house arrest for violent criminals.

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But Mr. Nicholson's most enduring legacy may be his role in reshaping the Supreme Court of Canada. In conjunction with Mr. Harper, he will appoint up to five new judges, almost certainly pushing the court toward an increasingly conservative orientation.

As Mr. Nicholson carries out his law-and-order agenda, he is sure to be assailed by criminologists and legal experts who point to falling crime rates and the soaring costs of imprisoning offenders.

However, their misgivings are no more likely to sway Mr. Nicholson from his course than they were when his government had minority status. Mr. Nicholson has doggedly stuck to a pronouncement that crime rates are "unacceptably high."

Law and order was noticeably less prominent in the last election than in previous elections. Still, it remains a touchstone issue that appeals to both the Conservatives' core constituency and a broad segment of Canadian society that believes crime is out of control.

Donald Stuart, a law professor at Queen's University, said those who care about sound legal principles can only hope that Mr. Nicholson and his government heed constructive criticism offered through the parliamentary committee system.

He noted that a recent citizen arrest bill contained needed reforms to areas of self-defence. "There have long been calls to simplify a notoriously complex area of everyday criminal law, but the bill as drafted needs a great deal of further study and refinement," he said.

Prof. Stuart expressed hope that the government will amend proposed new mandatory minimum sentences to reflect the findings of criminologists. "Otherwise, the government should expect Charter challenges," he cautioned.

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Several other hot-potato issues await Mr. Nicholson, including the uncertain fate of alleged terrorist Omar Khadr and controversy over the costs of expanding the prison system.

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About the Author
Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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