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Tories hope anti-gang fighter’s appointment to Senate will pay dividends

Don Meredith's arrival in the Senate, combined with Julian Fantino's election to the House of Commons, offers Stephen Harper a one-two law-and-order punch that the Conservatives hope will pay dividends in Toronto-area seats if an election is held next spring.

The new senator will also bolster the social-conservative credentials of a party that has drifted far from its Reform-era roots.

Throughout the past decade, the Jamaican-born Pentecostal minister has fought to break the cycle of gang violence in the Toronto area. As head of the GTA Faith Alliance, Mr. Meredith worked with police to target at-risk youth.

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During part of that time, he was on an advisory board that reported to Mr. Fantino, who was then Toronto's police chief.

"He focuses on the end game: solving problems, building relations, building trust, not focusing on agendas," Mr. Fantino said Tuesday. "He's just an incredible guy."

He is also a faithful Conservative, parachuting into Toronto Centre in a hopeless bid to prevent Bob Rae from winning the by-election that sent him to Parliament. By pushing aside a more socially liberal Tory hopeful, Mr. Meredith managed to drag the Conservative vote in the riding down to 12 per cent, behind even the Greens.

He did his cause no good by making potentially controversial statements in an interview with Toronto Xtra, a gay newspaper. Toronto's gay village is within the riding.

"It's the right of individuals to choose their orientation," Mr. Meredith said in a January, 2008, interview. Homosexuality, especially among homosexuals, is seen as an orientation and not a choice.

"It's problematic, because it implies that gay people could reasonably, if they wanted to fit into society, choose to be heterosexual, which is just not the case," said Matt Mills, the paper's editorial director.

Mr. Meredith could not be reached for comment. But Marjorie LeBreton, government leader in the Senate, defended Mr. Meredith's right to his views.

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"I would defend the rights of social conservatives, no matter what party they're in," she said Tuesday. "They have their views, and in a free and democratic society they have the right to express those views."

Mr. Meredith's arrival, along with former Montreal Alouette president Larry Smith, gives the Conservatives an absolute majority in the Senate for only the second time in 70 years. The first was in the first half of the 1990s.

"It'll strengthen our hand in dealing with justice bills, especially ones having to do with the youth criminal justice system," Ms. LeBreton predicted. "Guns and gangs and drugs. That's where Don Meredith will be really helpful."

When the Senate returns at the end of January, it will debate no fewer than 15 crime-related bills already passed by the House, including legislation to limit the right of judges to impose house arrest for people charged with serious offences; to require Internet service providers to report clients who are accessing child pornography and to prohibit sentence discounts from especially violent crimes.

Opposition critics maintain many of these bills would already have passed had the Conservatives not prorogued Parliament and delayed debate on some bills.

As with Mr. Fantino, who won November's by-election in the Greater Toronto riding of Vaughan, Mr. Meredith is expected to give the Tories more heft on their favourite issue of promoting law and order.

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Critics repeatedly point out that violent crime is steadily decreasing in Toronto as elsewhere. In fact, the data is mixed. From 2007 to 2010, the number of homicides in the city decreased each year from 83 to 59 (to date), according to the Toronto Police Service. But the number of shootings over that period increased from 197 to 251, and the number of shooting victims from 233 to 315. A growing proportion of those victims are teenagers.

The Conservatives believe that most voters fear the violence that marks too many communities, and that their relentless campaign to toughen laws, increase sentences and reduce judicial leniency will pay electoral dividends.

Don Meredith is simply the latest, though not the least, addition to that campaign.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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