Canada’s senators burnt the midnight oil Thursday as they wrapped up debate on the Conservatives’ controversial crime bill.
The Tories’ majority in the upper chamber helped pass their legislation in the face of stiff opposition from Liberal senators, two independents and one Conservative member, who voted against his party.
In the end the vote, 48 in favour to 37 opposed, was closer than expected, with nine Conservatives missing the midnight event along with seven Liberals and one independent.
Bill C-10, which was amended by a Senate committee, will be returned to the Commons for a final vote next week.
Conservative Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin told his Senate colleagues earlier Thursday he would vote against his own government’s bill because of its drug sentencing provisions.
Nolin said the war on drugs was responsible for dozens of deaths every day in places like Mexico, and that Canada will not escape the violence.
Legalizing drugs would weaken the drug cartels, Nolin said.
“These cartels are already active in Canada,” he told the Senate. “These dangers are very much present. It is not a figment of the imagination. It is waiting for us. We do not have the homicide rates … but it is something that may be waiting (for us),” he added.
Just like alcohol prohibition, the Tory Senator said, evidence shows that increasing the intensity of drug enforcement through mandatory minimum sentences and other legal sanctions will not reduce the crime and violence associated with the cannabis industry.
“Instead, these laws will serve only to further entrench control of the cannabis market in the hands of violent criminals and waste precious tax dollars,” Nolin said.
Conservative Sen. Linda Frum, suggested, however, that the lucrative drug business in Canada needed to be stopped at the source through more punishment not less.
“Marijuana is undeniably the jet fuel that powers Canadian-based organized crime and allows it to finance other illicit activities not only in Canada but across the world,” Frum said, citing witness testimony received at the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee.
Frum, suggested that, as a mother, she was particularly concerned marijuana had widespread effects on the well-being of Canadians — noting that it is linked to depression in youths.
“How many of you know that Canadian adolescents have the highest rates of cannabis consumption in the world?” she twice asked.
Independent Sen. Elaine McCoy said public opinion on drug use, notably marijuana, would change and was already changing.
“The war on drugs has failed, there is no doubt about it. Experience has shown that … it is just like prohibition in the 1930s,” she said. “We have created one of the most lucrative industries in the world, and it is called illegal drugs.”
In the last hour of debate, many Liberals made passionate speeches against the bill — but without a majority in the Senate, they had no chance of influencing the outcome.
Liberal Sen. Larry Campbell questioned the need for C-10, noting that the crime rate in Canada had not risen substantially over the last few years. “This legislation is not good for Canada,” he said. “This bill is grounded in ideology and political bias.”
It will waste government money, precious police resources and put pressure on an already strained court system, Campbell added. “And we do not have a real assessment from the Government on what exactly this bill will cost.”
Liberal Sen. Art Eggleton took issue with the bill’s mandatory minimum sentences saying if Canadians want to adopt “appropriate” penalties for offenders, judges are the ones to make those decisions.
Eggleton said Canada’s system has served the country well for 140 years and that many U.S. states are repealing their mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences.
Former Conservative spokesman for the bill Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who made headlines a few weeks ago for suggesting convicts should be given ropes with which to hang themselves in prison, said his office has been swamped with calls from Canadians “criticizing my rights to speech under the pretext that I am not elected.”
Boisvenu complained the media has also ordered him to be silent.
“A society that does not recognize the equal rights of speech for all its citizen is called a dictatorship,” he said.
Conservative Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais, the Tories new point man on crime legislation, said C-10 represented a repositioning of the pendulum of justice — something which Canadians have been demanding.
“C-10 is about introducing mandatory minimum sentences that will send a strong message to criminals telling them that there is a price to pay if they commit a crime in Canada,” he said.
But Liberal Sen. Grant Mitchell, the last Liberal to speak, said the bill will not accomplish its stated goal.
“I notice that if the Conservatives say something over and over again you have to assume immediately that it is wrong … The less likely it is to be true the more likely it is that they will hammer and try to make it true. The fact is it will create more victims, not fewer ones.”