The West Block — Episode 35, Season 12
THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 35, Season 12
Sunday, May 21, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
David Lametti, Justice Minister
Stephanie Levitz, Toronto Star
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail
Danielle Smith, UCP Leader
Rachel Notley, NDP Leader
Mercedes Stephenson: What’s the solution to making people feel safe in their communities again?
After coming under political pressure, the Liberals are toughening Canada’s bail laws. But will it be enough to curb violent crime?
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
The federal justice minister introduces long-awaited changes to bail into keeping violent repeat offenders off the streets. What’s behind the government’s decision?
And, the opposition has been pushing for a public inquiry into foreign interference for months now. This week, we’ll find out if that’s going to happen.
Police chiefs across the country have been sounding the alarm over a recent rise in violent crime. Ten police officers in Canada have been killed since September, a stark increase from the historical average of approximately three police officers being killed each year.
Officials gathered in Ottawa last week to pay their respects to the most recent officer killed in the line of duty, OPP Sgt. Eric Mueller.
Violent attacks on public transit have also increased since the pandemic, according to police, leaving many Canadians concerned about the safety of their communities.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says the Liberals have been soft on crime at the cost of Canadian safety.
Pierre Poilievre, Conservative Party Leader: “Justin Trudeau’s catch-and-release bail system that he passed in Bill C-75 with the help of the NDP, has unleashed a wave of violent crime across the country.”
After pressure from the provinces and the police, the federal government has introduced new bail reform changes aimed at cracking down on repeat violent offenders.
Joining me now to talk about this is Justice Minister David Lametti. Minister Lametti, nice to see you.
David Lametti, Justice Minister: Pleased to here. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, you see the opposition blaming your government for the rise in violent crime and it is factually accurate. There has been a significant rise in violent crime since the Liberal government came into power. Do you believe that some of the policies you’ve introduced bear some responsibility and that you as a government bear some responsibility for that rise in violent crime?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: No, not at all. I mean, crime policy, criminal justice policy doesn’t revolve down to a—doesn’t evolve down to a simple, silly slogan, as Mr. Poilievre seems to want to lead people to believe.
First of all, the statistics are not as clear as he claims they are. There has been a general decrease over the last 20 years in crime. There has been a spate of killing of police officers recently, as you pointed out in your introduction and that is true. My sympathies go out to the families of police officers, but also to law enforcement officers generally. We know they have a tough job and so that’s what we’re trying to do today is attack the problem of repeat violent offenders. But this is a complex problem. It goes to a number of different factors in society coming out a very unprecedented pandemic, which brought fault lines of mental health and other challenges to the fore, and so we’re dealing with all of that. The changes that we have made have, we think, improved the criminal justice system, allowing us to concentrate, quite frankly, on more serious crimes as opposed to wasting time and resources on people who should not be incarcerated.
Mercedes Stephenson: I mean, statistically, there has been an increase in violent crime since your government came into power and I hear you on there being multiple factors that feed into why violent crime rises, but you initially had introduced legislation that made it easier for people to get bail. Now you are introducing legislation that makes it tougher to get bail. Is it fair to say that you’ve had a change of heart on the issue of bail and that’s why you’re now reversing some of what you previously brought in?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: Well if what you’re saying is that C-75, the first bill made it easier to get bail, that’s just not true. We actually made it harder to get bail for intimate partner violence. We reversed the onus in part in those kinds of offences. We’ve expanded on that in this bill. And C-75 incorporated a number of fundamental principles of Canadian bail law that were announced—articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada but have long been a part of our bail system. The people in Bill C-75, the parts that Bill C-75 made it easier to get bail were not for violent offences. They were for administration of justice offences, like missing a bail hearing and that kind of thing so it is a very inaccurate characterization from the Conservative Party, in particular, to say that C-75 made it easier to get bail in Canada. That’s simply not true.
Mercedes Stephenson: But it’s not just the Conservatives who characterized it that way. It was the provinces and police forces as well. Are they wrong?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: Again, I dispute that characterization. That being said, I have worked very carefully with provinces and police associations over the last number of months, to target something that they did feel hadn’t been addressed in Canadian bail law, which was the challenge of repeat violent offenders. We’ve done just that, working with the provinces. We started back in October of last year, working with the provinces when the NDP government in British Columbia raised it at a federal-provincial territorial justice ministers meeting. Obviously, that process accelerated, to some extent, after the tragic killing of Constable Pierzchala in Southwestern Ontario, and we have worked diligently at a political level and at a technical level to bring forth these changes listening to police associations in a very targeted way—very targeted problem—repeat offenders with weapons and that’s precisely what we’ve done here.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why is it that it’s…?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: It doesn’t change Bill C-75, though. Nothing there changes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why is it that when you chose how to characterize violent offenders you limited it to violent offenders who were using weapons and not just violent with their hands, with something else?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: Well there is a general provision on violence we have added to this bill, which says that the judge or the justice of the peace who determines bail has to take a history of violence into account as a general matter as well as the feelings of communities. So we’ve asked judges and justices of the peace to turn their minds to that, as a general and that’s in this piece of legislation as well so that we know that at least they have considered that in their reasons for decision. What we’ve added are reverse onuses on specific—on something specifically targeted by provinces and territories, by justice ministers and by the police as being problematic. There has been a perception or a spade of violence with weapons, knives, for example, out West, bear spray, but also just repeat offenders with weapons, generally and we’ve targeted both of those things in this set of reforms.
Mercedes Stephenson: A number of criminal defence attorneys have questioned whether they think that this bill you’ve introduced will stand up to a challenge, to the scrutiny? Under our charter, you have a right to have bail when you are charged because you’re not convicted. You’ve still been charge and that you cannot be held without just cause. They’re saying that you may not be able to meet the just cause criteria, that you are still presumed to be innocent until you’re proven guilty at the point of a charge. Are you confident that this can stand up to a challenge that this will not be found to be unconstitutional?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: I’m very confident. Obviously, the charter is front of mind for me. Nobody will accuse—well nobody will confuse me with Pierre Poilievre when it comes to respecting the charter. So we worked within that tight space that—of charter passability or muster, if you will, has to pass muster under the charter. We think we’ve done that. We think we’ve done that by targeting very specific circumstances where we will reverse the onus. So it’s absolutely right for criminal defence lawyers, and I agree with them to say that you have a right to bail, presumptive right to bail. It’s a charter right. It’s a longstanding right because you are innocent until proven guilty. Here, the just cause will be linked to the very specific challenge, which is repeat violent offenders with weapons or offences with weap—with firearms, both of which we feel meet the standard of just cause. Not to deny bail, but to put the burden on the person to show that they will not be given these past offence—past accusations. They will not be someone who undermines public safety were we to put them out on bail. So there is still a possibility of bail and we feel that in this very narrow band of people—remember, this is not many people—we’ve been told again and again and again by provinces and police forces that it is a small group of people who are repeatedly offending in a violent manner. That’s what we’re targeting and so because it’s narrow, we feel we passed muster under the charter.
Mercedes Stephenson: The other question that some criminal defence attorneys have raised, and some activists, is that they’re concerned this could target people who are already marginalized in the justice system, like Indigenous offenders disproportionately. Do you share that concern?
David Lametti, Justice Minister: I definitely share that concern. That’s certainly one of my overarching priorities as justice minister, and I’ve brought forward legislation to attack the overrepresentation of Indigenous, black and other racialized peoples in the criminal justice system. I’m currently working on Indigenous leadership, with the black leadership across Canada, both an Indigenous justice strategy and a black justice strategy to attack systemic discrimination in our system. Again, the answer is the same as it was under the constitutional question, which is by keeping this narrow, by keeping this to a very small number of offenders who once again, are accused or of repeat violent offences with weapons that we minimize the potential impact that this might have on overrepresentation or on just discrimination generally against vulnerable groups.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Lametti, thank you for joining us today.
David Lametti, Justice Minister: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, will he or won’t he call for a public inquiry into foreign interference? We’ll find out on Tuesday what David Johnston recommends.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: “If he says nothing to worry about here, he’s sunk.”
Mercedes Stephenson: On Tuesday, all eyes will be on former governor general David Johnston. That’s when he will announce whether or not he will recommend a public inquiry into foreign interference.
The issue has dominated Ottawa for months now. Last week, Conservative MP Michael Chong, who was a target of intimidation by Beijing, appeared by a Commons committee, urging the government to be more transparent with Parliament and the public.
Michael Chong, Conservative MP: “CSIS has consistently advised that sunlight and transparency is a tool Canada can use to combat foreign interference threat activities so that the details of these threat activities are made public. That way, MPs, citizens, parties, and candidates, can make informed decisions about what is going on.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Chong says it’s time for Canada to catch up with countries like the UK and the United States, and he called for a national security review.
Joining me now to talk more about this is our inside politics panel: Stephanie Levitz with The Toronto Star and Bob Fife, the Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. Great to see both of you, thank you for coming in.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thanks for having us.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Hi.
Mercedes Stephenson: So Tuesday is the big day. Bob, do you see any scenario other than David Johnston calling for a public inquiry?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well, look, I mean the opposition parties are united in saying that there must be a public inquiry. Former national security advisors, former CSIS directives are all saying we need to have a public inquiry, but I spoke to somebody who had a discussion with the former governor general a couple weeks ago and he got the impression that David Johnston wasn’t completely convinced that a public inquiry is necessary. So it makes me hesitant in this sense, does he recommend something but is not a full scale public inquiry but some kind of very limited inquiry that will not last very long and that will get the Liberal government off the hook. Because everybody remembers what happens with the Gomery Inquiry. It sunk the Liberal Party, a public inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. And there may be concern here that if there is a public inquiry, what does it reveal about what the Liberals knew about it. So I’m not saying that Johnston’s in the tank with the Liberals at all. I’m just saying that this person had left the meeting feeling that he wasn’t convinced that a public inquiry is necessary. If he doesn’t feel a public inquiry is necessary then what would he recommend? If he says nothing to worry about here, he’s sunk.
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah. Steph, what are you expecting on Tuesday?
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: I’m expecting the parsing of all of this to just be done to the nth degree, to Bob’s point, in a world where he doesn’t call a public inquiry and what is the justification for not doing so? Is it placing security terms? Is it saying that listen, CSIS, the other national security agencies have now gone as far as they can publicly go. They won’t go any farther. This is just going to be a political exercise. What’s the nuance he puts around it? There’s also, should he say no, the political fallout from it and how the government stick handles that because as Bob pointed out, all the opposition parties are very, very united in their demands for a public inquiry. Should David Johnston say no, what did they do with that and in particular, what do the New Democrats do with that? Because they keep saying they have made, you know, this public inquiry important to them. They also had the supply and coffins deal with the Liberals. We keep looking for the trigger, the pressure point, the thing where the New Democrats are going to say I’m walking away. Is this one of those pressure points? Conversely, if he says yes, there’s going to be a public inquiry. Well when? How long will it last? Who defines the scope of that? Rouleau, when he did the Emergencies Act public inquiry, one of the things he talked about was how that mandate should be set in conjunction with the commissioner. It should not be up to the government to decide how the government investigates itself. And so that’s an interesting point. If Johnston punts the terms of the inquiry back to the Liberals, well then the Liberals can just do whatever’s going to cover their butts, if they want. And does that get us any farther ahead into the point of all of this, which is making sure that we have trust in our institutions and that’s the fundamental thing here. Not the politics of it. Not the who knew what, when. Can we trust in our institutions and what do Canadians need to have that trust?
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, do you see a scenario where this becomes a potential election trigger?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Oh, sure. It definitely could be because this has consumed the government since—basically since January, a bit earlier in November as well, but now it’s—like this is the issue that has the government on the ropes. And Canadians are very, very concerned that our democracy has been interfered by Chinese diplomats. Not just our democracy, we’ve seen it in our universities. We’ve seen it in almost all segments of society. And the Liberals cannot get away with just passing this off. This is a serious issue. People want it dealt with and they have not shown any willingness to take this seriously. They’ve all used all kinds of excuses. This is not important. If you raise this, you’re a racist. Every kind—they’ve used Commons committees where they’ve delayed having people testify. They’ve gone out of their way to try to not let the public know what was going—what has been going on here and it’s not going to pass the smell test. And it is a very serious issue for the Liberals because it could really affect the election campaign for them if—particularly if they don’t have a public inquiry, or if they have a limited public inquiry, or even if there is a public inquiry and it looks like yeah, the Liberals knew about a lot of this stuff but they turned a blind eye because they’re the ones who are benefitting from it.
Mercedes Stephenson: But—and you had a story late last week talking about what Bill Blair, who then was the public safety minister, knew in terms of surveillance on a major Liberal target. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Yeah. So Michael Chan is a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, he’s now the deputy mayor of Markham. He is a Liberal kingpin in the great Toronto area in the Chinese-Canadian community. And you only have to go online to see all the pictures with him with Liberal MPs and Conservatives by the way. So he’s a big player. He’s been on CSIS radar for quite a long time, and they wanted to get, which is very unusual, an electronic and entry warrant, which means that they could bug everything—his house, his car, his phones, his computers, his office—and CSIS wanted to do this before the election according to a national security source and Bill Blair delayed this approval before it went to a judge. He’s the final person with sign-off before it goes to a judge for approval, for—I’m told—for about four months. The minister’s office says, well, I mean, you know, he’s not a rubber stamp. He has to make sure this is properly vetted and there was a case in 2021 where the federal court was not happy with the way CSIS had gone about warrants. So that’s their argument and the opposition parties are always saying look, this doesn’t pass the smell test. This was a very important Liberal Party kingpin, player, power broker, and you were delaying for four months. So that’s another indication that this government has not taken Chinese interference in Canadian politics very seriously.
Mercedes Stephenson: Steph, why do you think they’re still going with the strategy they have, which is the—it’s the drip, drip, drip, things keep coming out, that everything is reflexive. It’s knee-jerk. It’s responsive. They’re not getting ahead of anything. They’re not being transparent. Do you think the calculus is on that that they think there’s more to lose, perhaps part of that transparency? They think this issue’s going to go away? It’s been going on for months now and it’s not getting any lesser.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: It’s probably a little of all of those things, Mercedes. I mean, you know, I’m not sitting around the cabinet table, or the PMO table or any of those tables, but the Liberals have a reflex that they are always right. And I suppose many people in power believe that they’re always right. But the Liberals often believe that they are morally right, that their perspective is the right perspective and if you disagree with them—and they don’t like being told they’re wrong—the don’t like being told they’ve screwed up and they retreat. They freeze, as opposed to the transparency. And we witnessed it when we had the story that Bob wrote about Michael Chong. It took the three days to get to telling people what they knew. It could have been solved in an instant by saying the truth. And they reflexively think the truth isn’t good enough, for some reason and that’s a really unfortunate characteristic of our democracy at present. It doesn’t belong only to them, it belongs at every level of government, every political party where somehow the truth is no longer considered to be good enough and they wait and try and find ways to spin, massage, allow for the truth and then we end up where we are now, when maybe the truth could have saved us all a lot of headache.
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, do you think that Pierre Poilievre has been effective in all this?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: No, because he is so partisan, like he wouldn’t even meet with David Johnston, for example, which I think was—I think that was beneath him. You know, if the special rapporteur wants to meet with the Opposition leader, I think he had an obligation to do so. The person who has been prime ministerial throughout this whole thing has been Michael Chong. Not the prime minister who has done all of the obfuscation that you mentioned and not Pierre Poilievre who just can’t help himself but has to be bitterly partisan about almost every issue. Michael Chong rose to the occasion. This was a threat to Parliament, to the rights of members of Parliament, to our democracy and it was because of his stature in the House of Commons that you saw everybody unite together and the government was actually shame faced into having to expel this Chinese diplomat, which they would not have done if it, say, had been a really partisan member of Parliament. But nobody, as you know, we all know Michael. He’s a man of great integrity and that forced the government to expel him, but I also think it may have changed the public conversation as well for a lot of Canadians because—like this is really serious when they’re going Chinese diplomats think they can go after members of Parliament because they don’t like what they’ve been saying about their serious abuses of human rights.
Mercedes Stephenson: Steph and Bob, thank you both for joining us. I’m sure we’ll be back talking about this once we find out what David Johnston’s going to recommend and what the government does with all this.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thanks, Mercedes.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Appreciate your time.
Up next, Alberta’s election campaign hits the home stretch. What I’m watching for in the final days of this very tight race.
Mercedes Stephenson: And now for one last thing…
We’re headed into the final week of the Alberta election campaign, and the race between NDP Leader Rachel Notley and UCP Leader Danielle Smith is still incredibly tight. The two leaders duked it out last week at a debate.
Rachel Notley, NDP Leader: Do you really want to…
Danielle Smith, UCP Leader: That in an…
Rachel Notley, NDP Leader: Talk about our candidates and our MLAs?
Danielle Smith, UCP Leader: Well I can tell you…
Rachel Notley, NDP Leader: Like seriously, I do not think you’re going win that one.
Danielle Smith, UCP Leader: I can tell you…
Mercedes Stephenson: There was a few fiery exchanges over which leader had the worst track record as premier.
Danielle Smith, NCP Leader: The reason she does that is she doesn’t want to run on her record. And the reason she doesn’t want to run on her record is it was an absolute disaster.
Rachel Notley, NDP Leader: I’ve been in office since 2008. I have never actually breached the conflict of interest legislation. Ms. Smith cannot say the same.
Mercedes Stephenson: But ultimately there was no clear winner. At this point, it’s still very much anyone’s game. And politicos say the next premier will likely be decided by voters in Calgary, some of whom are soft UCP supports but could be convinced to swing orange.
I’ll be back home next week in Calgary, covering the final days of the campaign. Until then, that’s our show for this week. Thanks for hanging out with us and we’ll see you next Sunday from Alberta.
by Global News