There are “no quick or easy solutions” for the recent surge of violence on transit and in the streets of Canadian cities, Justice Minister David Lametti says.
His comment comes after a series of violent attacks on commuters across Canada, including in Edmonton, Toronto, and Winnipeg.
In late January, a woman was stabbed on a streetcar in Toronto. Two uniformed TTC workers were also assaulted on their way to work, another TTC driver was shot with a BB gun, and a person wearing a religious head covering was hit in a subway station in an alleged hate-motivated assault.
Last week, a person was arrested after allegedly chasing two TTC workers with a syringe. On Tuesday, longtime CBC journalist and editor Michael Finlay died after a random assault in Toronto the week before.
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Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, where Conservative MPs were calling on the government to toughen bail laws, Lametti said each incident has been a “personal tragedy” and a “blow to our communities.”
“Canada has a strong and effective criminal justice system, including its bail laws. But we all know that things can always be improved. Canadians deserve to be and to feel safe. And we have a role to play in protecting our communities,” he said.
“I want to reassure Canadians that if someone poses a significant threat to public safety, the law tells us they should not be released on bail.”
Conservative politicians and police associations have been calling on the government to toughen bail laws to ensure repeat offenders remain behind bars. The calls rose to new heights after the shooting death of 28-year-old Ontario Provincial Police Const. Grzegorz Pierzchala in late December.
The accused was out on bail with a warrant out for his arrest for breaching conditions. His past offences include several firearms offences and assaulting a peace officer.
The Conservatives tabled an opposition day motion on Thursday calling on the government to take a number of steps to toughen its bail laws, including repealing parts of Bill C-75, a piece of legislation that the Liberal government passed in 2019. The bill made a number of changes aimed at reducing judicial delays, modernizing the bail system, and reducing the overrepresentation of racialized people in jails.
In the motion, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre argued Bill C-75 brought about changes that “force judges to release violent, repeat offenders onto the streets, allowing them to reoffend.”
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Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday morning, Conservative MP Raquel Dancho accused the government of moving too slow — particularly after Pierzchala’s death.
“I didn’t hear anything to satisfy me that (the government is) going to be doing something in the next few weeks, few months to bring forward some change,” Dancho said.
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The calls aren’t only coming from the Conservatives.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) put out a press release in January demanding “legislative reforms, including the bail process involving violent repeat offenders and violent firearm offences.”
In a Jan. 13 letter, Canada’s premiers also called for bail reforms related to firearms offences.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has also issued a plea for change.
But the issues at hand, Lametti said, are not ones that can be fixed overnight.
“I’m disappointed that the official Opposition is using tragedies to try to score political points,” the justice minister said earlier in the debate.
“Canadians know that these are serious and complicated issues and that there are no quick or easy solutions.”
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Work is already underway to consider the calls from premiers to toughen bail reforms, Lametti added.
One of those calls is to establish a “reverse onus” for bail on additional offences.
“I can assure this House that I am giving this serious consideration and the work is well underway. We’ve also heard calls for law enforcement reform. I’m grateful for their recommendations based on front line experience,” he said.
“Work is underway to develop legislative and non-legislative options to address the particular challenges of repeat violent offenders.”
Meanwhile, some legal experts argue tougher bail laws across the board could actually make the public less safe — and force more legally innocent people to suffer.
“We do not want to imprison people who have not been found guilty. We don’t want to imprison innocent people,” said Michael Spratt, a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa, speaking with Global News when the calls for bail reform first emerged in early January.
Being held in remand actually “increases the rate of recidivism,” which means the person is “more likely to commit offences when they eventually are released,” Spratt said.
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Spending time in detention, even for a short period of time, can cause people to lose income, housing, employment and social connections, according to a 2014 report from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
All those things are “stabilizing factors,” it said, that contribute to “individual success and community safety.”
Spratt expressed a similar concern.
“If someone is cut off from the community, cut off from employment, cut off from family, are exposed to violence, exposed to negative influences while in custody, they’re more likely to reoffend,” he said.
According to Statistics Canada figures from 2018-19, there were 70 per cent more adults in remand — meaning they were denied bail — on an average day than adults who were there because they had been convicted of a crime.
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For some of these people, the time they’re forced to spend in remand forces them to make some difficult decisions.
“The number of times that I’ve had to have such hard conversations with clients where they are innocent,” said Spratt.
“I tell them they can win their case because the evidence is on our side, but they’re denied bail … either because of a past record or because (they have) no stable address or because they’re marginalized in some way.”
But then, when his client is told their trial will be months away and they could be released today if they plead guilty — despite Spratt’s belief they could win their case — many choose immediate freedom.
“The incentive to plead guilty and accept responsibility for something you didn’t do — even though that means you could get a record or lose employment opportunities, or lose housing opportunities or lose the ability to travel or parent your children — is so overwhelming, because the conditions in jail are so Dickensian,” Spratt said.
— with files from Global News’ Aya Al-Hakim
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