Quebec has been joined by Ontario and British Columbia in voicing their skepticism over Stephen Harper's crime bill, telling Ottawa they will not pay for downloaded costs.
Quebec's Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier has told the House of Commons Justice Committee that Quebec will not pay for the additional costs associated with the Conservative's crime omnibus bill. And in the process, he may have inadvertently started what one political commentator is calling this country's latest "fight over federalism."
Fournier told the Justice Committee that the extra costs associated with the bill will ultimately be downloaded onto the provinces. And as finance ministers across the country are telling their citizens to tighten their belts, additional burdens from Ottawa are not especially welcome.
Mr. Fourneir is arguing that Quebec simply does not have the means at their disposal to cover costs associated with legislation they have not asked for, nor do they support.
“This bill does not offer the financial support for these changes,” he said in the Toronto Star.
“Quebec refuses to absorb these costs," Fournier noted, adding "there will additional costs for justice, for the prosecution, for also incarceration. . . . we cannot afford it.”
According to CBC, Mr. Fournier also took a different stand against the legislation. In his estimation, it is not simply that Quebec cannot afford the additional costs associated with the bill, but that on a fundamental level, Quebec firmly disagrees with the tough-on-crime approach that Stephen Harper has taken with regards to the Canadian criminal justice system.
"Fournier said Quebec takes a different approach to dealing with young offenders that is more focused on rehabilitation than incarceration," the CBC reports, "and that it is working.
"He said the legislation is meant to put more people in jail and that will result in higher recidivism rates unless more is done to get at the root causes of criminality and to successfully reintegrate offenders into society so they can go on to lead productive lives."
Not long after Mr. Fournier made his fiery testimony to the Justice Committee, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark also spoke out on the matter, although Mr. McGuinty was much more aggressive.
“It’s easy for the federal government to pass new laws dealing with crime,” McGuinty told the Ottawa Citizen, “but if there are new costs associated with those laws that have to be borne by the taxpayers of Ontario, I expect the feds will pick up that tab."
Mr. McGuinty asked,
“What is the expectation on the part of Ontario taxpayers? That expectation is this: I say to the feds — I demand of the feds — if, for example, you want us to build new prisons in Ontario and staff those prisons with highly trained personnel, that’s an additional cost to us and it is incumbent upon you, as the creator of those costs, to come up with the money.”
B.C. Premier Christy Clark was more cautious in her response, noting in the Vancouver Sun that "we have to be conscious about all those pressures on our budget and, as you know, we've had some pretty significant pressures and we certainly do this year, and next year we will as well." Ms. Clark did note that B.C.'s Solicitor General had some concerns with who would be picking up the tab of the crime bill's additional costs, but would not state whether her province would refuse to participate as Quebec has done.
It is estimated the the crime bill will come with an additional price tag of anywhere between $2B and $10B over five years, according to Scott Stinson at the National Post, depending on who you ask.
How might this set off the next big fight over federalism in Canada? Because of the jurisdictions involved, justice legislation is traditionally determined by the federal government in Ottawa, while it largely falls to the provinces to enforce the legislation. While Quebec could not simply opt out of the Criminal Code of Canada, Stinson notes, its judges and law enforcement could refuse to follow the rules set down by the feds in Ottawa. After all, enforcement of the legislation is a provincial responsibility.
But it might not be that simple. While it would be simple enough for a province to avoid handing out tickets for minimal offences covered by the bill, the legislation includes "mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and sexual offences," Stinson notes - much more serious crimes that would benefit from a (somewhat) universal approach to sentencing on behalf of the provinces.
The only way to avoid imposing them would be to not convict anyone of those crimes. Or, taking the fight a step further, the provincial ministry could order its Crowns to not seek those sentences, and have judges refuse to hand them out. We would be in uncharted waters at this point, I think. A federally dictated law that the province, possibly provinces, decline to enforce.
Omnibus legislation tends not to be the best way to deal with sensitive or emotional issues, and how to deal with Canada's criminal offenders certainly has that distinction. It's a rather blunt instrument for getting legislation passed. What's more, the crime bill in question is actually a smorgasbord of smaller pieces of criminal legislation that failed to pass in previous Parliaments and have been mashed together in a semi-workable form, which makes a tough situation truly hellish for handling the subtleties of crime legislation.
Either way, we will have to wait and see if the tough rhetoric from Canada's largest provinces is merely that - or if, as Stinson believes, this may be the beginning of the new fight over federalism.