The benefit of fixed election dates is that we probably know when the
next federal election will take place. So, you can mark your calendars —
but do it in pencil just in case — Canada will be voting on Oct. 21,
With the federal election only a year away and given the
glacial pace of the government’s promised justice reform, there’s not
much time for any new criminal justice bills. And given the partisan
politics that have become hard-baked into criminal justice proposals,
the Liberals will certainly not want to provide fodder for the
inevitable Conservative “soft-on-crime” attack ads.
What we have here is all the justice legislation we’re going to get.
So, now is as good a time as any to see if the
Liberals have lived up to their lofty justice promises. And, boy, did
the Liberals come to power in 2015 on the back of some very big
The instructions provided by the prime minister to Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould
were ambitious. She was instructed, among other things, to modernize the
justice system, increase the use of restorative justice, increase the
government’s Charter compliance and address gaps in the justice system
that allow the most marginalized Canadians to fall through the cracks.
The Liberals also promised to embrace evidence-based policy-making, to
restore judicial discretion, to legalize cannabis and to eschew omnibus
Unfortunately, by any measure, the Liberal government
has not only failed to live up to its promises but has moved
progressive justice policy backwards.
But let’s start with one
almost positive. When it comes to the legalization of marijuana, it
seems that the Liberals kept their promise — sort of. They pledged to
legalize marijuana because it “traps too many Canadians in the criminal
justice system.” So, in 2015, the Liberals promised to “remove marijuana
consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code.”
the Liberal’s cannabis legislation doesn’t do any of those things very
well. Sure, the new legislation does legalize some marijuana — some of
the time, under some circumstances — but it does not “remove marijuana
consumption and possession from the Criminal Code.”
in addition to leaving marijuana criminal in too many circumstances,
the cannabis legislation also discriminates against the young and the
poor and is checkered with unconstitutional provisions. Amendments to
correct these issues were proposed when the bill was studied, but the
Liberal-controlled committee rejected every opposition amendment —
evidence-based policy be dammed.
But the list of promises, even half-kept ones, basically ends there.
even in the face of an explicit promise, the government has taken no
action to address the problem of minimum sentences. Even though almost
all the evidence suggests that minimum sentencing is a counterproductive
measure that contributes to inequality and court delays — while
offering no increase in community safety — the government has done
Wilson-Raybould did introduce a bill to restore some
discretion to judges to determine the appropriate victim fine
surcharges, but that bill languished on the order paper and was
abandoned only to be sent back to square one and incorporated into the
self-described “bold” criminal justice reform bill C-75.
C-75 does little to satisfy the Liberals’ lofty justice rhetoric. This
flagship and highly criticized piece of legislation reacted to
high-profile court cases by eliminating the preliminary inquiry and
radically changing jury selection. When combined with legislation that
would compel an accused to make reverse disclosure to the Crown in
sexual assault cases, Wilson-Raybould’s “bold” justice reform has been
described by the criminal defence bar as “utter and complete betrayal,”
an erosion of procedural safeguards and “worse than anything [former
prime minister Stephen] Harper ever did.”
What is missing from the
government’s criminal justice track record are any meaningful measures
to transform how we deal with crime driven by addiction, poverty or
mental health. Missing is any recognition that systemic racism is a
problem. Missing is anything remotely resembling the promised reforms.
the government cannot be criticized for a lack of vision — just look at
all its promises. But the Liberals’ first term in power has shown that
they are willing to sacrifice that vision. Perhaps they don’t have the
stomach for necessary reforms, perhaps they were full of hot air when
they made the promises or maybe they just don’t really care about
community safety, constitutional values and fairness.
show the last four years as a missed opportunity. And a government that
swept to power with the support of many in the criminal defence bar may
learn the lesson that there is no greater fraud than a promise not
Michael Spratt is a partner at the Ottawa criminal law firm of Abergel Goldstein & Partners.