Clock ticking on bill to curb mandatory minimums as Parliament winds down

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said passing a bill aimed at eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for some firearm and drug offences remains 'a priority.' (Blair Gable/Reuters - image credit)
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said passing a bill aimed at eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for some firearm and drug offences remains 'a priority.' (Blair Gable/Reuters - image credit)

A bill aimed at eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for some firearm and drug offences is stuck in the legislative process, with just days to go before the end of Parliament's spring session.

The Liberal government introduced Bill C-22 in February, but it has only gone as far as second reading in the House of Commons. The proposed law would eliminate mandatory minimum penalties for all drug offences as well as for some firearms offences; currently, anyone convicted of those offences is automatically sentenced to a minimum amount of prison time.

With just a handful of sitting days remaining for Parliament before breaking for summer and a potential election looming, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the bill remains "a priority."

"I think it's really important to be to be smart on crime. And that means that our policing, our court system, our sentencing provisions and records should be proportional to the offence," Blair told host Chris Hall in an interview for CBC's The House that aired Saturday.

But if C-22 is not signed into law before an election is called — something widely speculated to happen this fall — the bill will die on the order paper and would need to be re-introduced in the next Parliament, effectively restarting the process. Advocates say this would delay much-needed changes to the Canadian judicial system.

LISTEN | Public Safety Minister Bill Blair discusses criminal justice reform:

Bill would restore judicial discretion, expert says

Critics of mandatory minimum penalty rules argue that they disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and marginalized Canadians and lead to over-incarceration. When Justice Minister David Lametti introduced the bill in February, he presented it as one of the government's steps to combat systemic racism in the justice system.

"I'd like to think that this was not intentional," Blair said. "But unfortunately, what we have seen with with the overuse of mandatory sentences by a previous government is that it has really created a disparate and disproportionate impact on racialized and Indigenous people."

The previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper introduced a broad array of mandatory minimum penalties (MMPs) into the Criminal Code during its nine years in power as part of a "tough on crime" agenda. Many of those penalties were struck down by courts across the country as unconstitutional.

Bill C-22 would eliminate MMPs for 14 of the 67 offences in the Criminal Code that currently carry them as well as all six offences of that type in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. MMPs would remain on offences like murder and sexual offences.

But the offences covered in Bill C-22 make up only a portion of the MMPs that were deemed unconstitutional by various courts.

Lisa Kerr, an assistant professor of law at Queen's University, told The House the bill is meant to restore some discretion to judges when cases have mitigating circumstances, including cases involving someone "who is young, who's a first time offender, who has subsequent to the offence turned our life around."

Kerr said the legislation is intended to ensure "that a judge doesn't have to send that person into custody when every other point of analysis in the case would tell the judge: send this person home."

Bill unlikely to pass, senator says

With several steps in the legislative process left to go and just three sitting days currently scheduled, Independent Sen. Kim Pate said all signs point to the end of Bill C-22 when the House of Commons rises for the summer.

It could be some time before any changes are actually made to Canadian law; if an election were called, Parliament would dissolve and effectively send any unpassed bills back to Square 1.

"Given that the government said a priority is to reduce the numbers of Black and Indigenous prisoners in our prison system, you'd think this would be a priority. But it doesn't seem to be at this stage," said Pate, who co-authored an opinion piece in February criticizing the bill.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The public safety minister pointed the finger at opposition parties as a reason for the bill languishing in the legislative process.

"It's a priority for us, but I think it might be helpful if it was a priority for the entire parliament," he said.

Mandatory minimums not a deterrent, critics say

It's certainly a priority for those most affected by the rules — accused or convicted Canadians.

Guy Felicella said he was convicted dozens of times over three decades in Vancouver for dealing and using drugs. After seeking help and participating in therapy, he now works as a peer clinical advisor at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

He estimated that without mandatory minimums, he would have spent just three or four years in jail rather than the nine he did.

LISTEN | The fight to end mandatory minimum penalties:

Felicella said that the existence of MMPs had no deterrent effect on him, and that it was time to make changes to the system itself.

"You know, honestly, we have to not look at the person who's using drugs. We have to look at the system and say, 'look, this is really not working,'" he said.

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