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The revival of the Law Reform Commission is money well spent in Freeland’s budget

Buried deep in the gigantic spending document is $18 million over five years that is well worth it

Michael Spratt

The Liberal government’s 700+ page mega-budget, the first in over two years, dropped last month, and it turns out Canada is going to spend some money.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced more than $100 billion in new spending, which she said was aimed primarily at finishing the fight against COVID. “It’s about healing the economic wounds left by the COVID recession. And it’s about creating more jobs and prosperity for Canadians in the days and decades to come.” Freeland told the House of Commons.

But there was much more than just COVID spending. Freeland, most relevant to a column dedicated to the justice system, committed billions of dollars for justice initiatives. However, it might be one of the tiniest justice spending announcements that will be the most significant.

Buried deep in Freeland’s gigantic spending document, the government pledged to provide $18 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, and $4 million ongoing, to re-establish the Law Reform Commission of Canada.

Experts have long recognized that independent expertise and advice are critical if Canada’s legal system is responsive to the complex challenges facing the justice system and have been calling for the Law Reform Commission revival for more than a decade.

The legislation creating the Law Reform Commission of Canada was introduced in 1970 by then Liberal Minister of Justice and Attorney General John Turner. For 35 years (with a slight interruption), the Law Reform Commission provided non-partisan advice to the Canadian government on necessary legal reforms. The LRC’s mandate was to study and keep under review, on an ongoing basis, the laws of Canada, to make recommendations for their improvement.

In 1970, during the debate on the bill to form the LRC, Conservative justice critic Eldon Mattison Woolliams noted that “although there is not one law for the rich and one for the poor, that is the case in its application. …  So, there is discrimination … The point I am making is that I hope this law commission will not just be a piece of window dressing.”

Eldon was right then, and his words are equally valid today. Too often, Canada’s criminal laws do more harm than good. They target people who struggle with mental health, addiction, and poverty. They rely on outdated myths, like the idea that harsh sentences and general deterrence can prevent crime. Through the criminal system’s operation, racialized Canadians are charged by police more often, prosecuted more vigorously, and incarnated at higher rates than non-racialized people.

The LRC received unanimous support from all members of Parliament in 1970, and the parliamentary record shows a level of intelligent and measured debate that seems aspirational by today’s standards.

But, the LRC was one of the first victims of the Harper government. In 2006, less than a year after coming to power, the Conservative government eliminated the LRC’s funding, a politically expedient and short-sighted decision that saved a little more than $4 million.

And now it’s back.

Many of the issues that plague Canada’s justice system will take more than the life of a single government to fix. Long-term study and independent expertise are vital to modernizing and reforming Canada’s criminal law and procedure to ensure that our laws are equitable and effective.

Sure, governments have long ignored expertise and evidence regarding justice issues but resurrecting the LRC is an excellent and long-overdue first step towards getting things right.

Freeland’s budget also earmarks almost a half-billion dollars to other initiatives to fighting racism, support victims of gender-based violence, increase access to justice, and modernize our courts.

Some of these initiatives, like $21.5 million to support organizations that provide free public legal education and information and $600 million for a comprehensive National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence and $27 million to maintain immigration and refugee legal aid support, are desperately needed.

But despite the talk of assisting racialized communities, supporting people living in poverty, and increasing access to justice, there was not one cent earmarked to help provinces with criminal legal aid. Yes, there are jurisdictional issues here, but for too long, the federal government has downloaded increasing justice costs to the provinces, who have in turn passed it on to vulnerable accused people. Criminal lawyers, especially during COVID, have operated as the grease that keeps the gears of the justice system moving. We need help. There was little of that in this budget.

And, of course, the budget shovels billions of dollars to law enforcement, prisons, and the military. Why reform these broken institutions when it is much easier to throw money at them?

Freeland’s budget may have fallen short in some significant areas, but $18 million for a Law Reform Commission may well turn out to be one of the best investments she has ever made.

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