As Canada grapples with an apparent surge in crime, federal Justice Minister David Lametti said Friday the government will make it more difficult for some criminal offenders to get out on bail.
Lametti made the commitment after meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in Ottawa — ministers who earlier this year urged Lametti to make changes to close bail loopholes they say make the country's communities more dangerous.
Lametti said the government will "move forward quickly on targeted reforms" to the country's bail regime.
He said those changes will be designed to make it more difficult for repeat violent offenders — particularly those previously convicted of firearms-related crimes — to get out of jail while they wait for a trial.
Under the law, a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty. Granting them bail means they can remain out of jail while their case moves through the justice system — a process that can take many months.
Under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, accused people in Canada have the right to bail unless there is a compelling reason to keep them in custody.
"Bail is a constitutional right, but it is not absolute," Lametti said.
"Our laws are clear that bail can be denied where there is just cause, when it is necessary for the safety of the public or to maintain the public's confidence in the administration of justice."
Lametti said the provinces came to the meeting with "well-prepared suggestions and proposals" to amend the Criminal Code to restrict access, but he declined to say Friday what exactly the government will do to change bail.
He said the specific legislative changes will come after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other cabinet ministers have had a chance to weigh in on the issue. Those changes will be introduced sometime this spring, the minister said.
After the alleged killing of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Const. Grzegorz Pierzchala by a man out on bail, the deaths of other police officers and a spate of seemingly random violent attacks on the streets of Canada's big cities, provincial leaders have said Ottawa needs to take a harder line on crime.
According to Statistics Canada data that tracks police-reported crime nationwide, violent crime in Canada is up some 30 per cent since 2015 — the year the federal Liberal government took office.
On Friday, Lametti referred to Pierzchala's death as a "catalyst for change."
Lametti conceded that "public confidence" in the justice system has been "affected by recent events."
"I hope our work today will reverse that trend," Lametti said.
He said bail changes that target alleged criminals with past convictions for firearms, knives or bear spray is one possible fix.
"These are particular examples of where we feel there is a challenge and where we feel we need to not just make Canadians safer but make Canadians feel safer," he said.
Premiers have called on the federal government to establish a "reverse onus" system for some offences, which would require a person seeking bail to demonstrate why they should not remain behind bars. Lametti didn't commit to that.
Ontario Justice Minister Doug Downey told reporters that the idea was raised during the meeting, but he was coy about whether any promises had been made.
"We felt heard. There was a lot of collaboration. I look forward to action sooner than later," he said.
The federal Conservatives have also been pressing the government to toughen up access to bail for repeat offenders, particularly in cases that involve firearms.
Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre has said Trudeau's approach to crime has been too soft and has allowed individuals who pose a danger to society to be released into the community.
Poilievre has also been pushing the Liberal government to reverse Bill C-75, a law it passed in 2019 that updated bail provisions in the Criminal Code.
Poilievre has called the legislation "Justin Trudeau's catch-and-release bill" because, he said, it makes it harder to confine accused criminals in jail.
"What we need to do is keep the small number of repeat, habitual violent offenders behind bars and, when they're newly arrested, deny them bail until such time as their trials are completed," Poilievre told a press conference after Pierzchala's December death.
"Every Canadian has the right to be safe and our police officers need all the support they can get in order to provide that safety."
Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth, the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), has also said the government needs to strip "chronic offenders" of bail access.
The government's Bill C-75 codified a "principle of restraint" that was affirmed in a 2017 Supreme Court case emphasizing release of detainees at the "earliest reasonable opportunity" and "on the least onerous conditions," based on the circumstances of the case.
Police were also granted more power to place conditions on accused individuals to streamline the bail process and reduce the number of court appearances.
The legislation also required judges to consider the circumstances of people who are Indigenous or from vulnerable populations.