Manitoba wants knives added to Criminal Code gun-offence bail provision

Manitoba’s justice minister is lobbying Ottawa to make it tougher for people accused of violent knife crimes to be freed on bail, arguing the move would increase public safety.

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Manitoba’s justice minister is lobbying Ottawa to make it tougher for people accused of violent knife crimes to be freed on bail, arguing the move would increase public safety.

Kelvin Goertzen sent a letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti Thursday asking him to consider amending the Criminal Code to add knives to a provision that makes it harder for someone charged with a gun crime to get bail.

“It would make a significant difference because our prosecutors, when they’re presenting before a judge, it really is almost impossible for them to argue against bail, in most cases — guns being different,” Goertzen said during an interview at the legislature.

“Adding knives to that would make it easier for our prosecutors to say, ‘Hey, this probably isn’t an appropriate time for somebody to be out on bail because of the significance of the charge they’re facing.’”

The provision puts a reverse onus on the accused to, essentially, prove why they should obtain bail, Goertzen said.

In 2021, 1,199 violent crimes investigated by Winnipeg police involved a knife — a decrease of 16 per cent from 2020 but comparable to the five-year average. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

While the province didn’t provide statistics, the number of people being rearrested while on bail for alleged violent offences is a “significant problem,” he said.

Police services and Crown attorneys have expressed concern and frustration to him.

“More importantly, that victim of another crime is wondering, ‘Well, how is it that this individual who already has been charged with a violent crime with a knife was back out to reoffend?’” said Goertzen.

The MLA for Steinbach acknowledged there would be an impact on space and costs at correctional facilities if Ottawa agrees to the proposed change.

“Ultimately, we’re not going to make decisions based on public safety on space considerations,” said Goertzen.

Ottawa has not responded to his letter, he said.

Canada’s Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Goertzen’s request appears to be “reactionary,” said Chris Gamby, a Winnipeg-based lawyer and spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.

Gamby doesn’t expect the federal government to agree to the proposal because judges already have “plenty of tools” available to deny bail where appropriate.

“I don’t know that it’s strictly constitutional,” he said.

Public-safety activist Sel Burrows says he has anecdotal evidence that accused violent offenders are getting bail more often than in the past. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Goertzen said he doesn’t foresee any constitutional issues because there is already a provision for people charged with gun offences, under subsection 515(6).

In a statement, Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police vice-president Rob Hill — commanding officer of the RCMP in Manitoba — said the organization supports Goertzen’s effort.

The Winnipeg Police Service did not say whether it supports the proposed amendment.

In police hands

It is up to police to determine how to deal with the laws and legislation, while two encampments remain outside the legislature, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen says.
The province gave an eviction deadline of noon Tuesday, but the camps remain in place.
The evictions were served in the interest of safety, and the province will now let police handle the situation in the way that they feel best, Goertzen said.
Chris Kitching

Manitoba RCMP spokesman Sgt. Paul Manaigre said he cannot comment on Goertzen’s comments “except to say that we support any measure that improves public safety.”

In 2021, 1,199 violent crimes investigated by Winnipeg police involved a knife — a decrease of 16 per cent from 2020 but comparable to the five-year average — while 470 were committed with a gun.

Almost one in five (18 per cent) incidents involving knives could not be solved because the victims refused to co-operate, according to the latest annual report.

Coun. Markus Chambers, chair of the Winnipeg Police Board, supports Goertzen’s effort to “tighten” the Criminal Code.

“This will help slow down the revolving door of the justice system, and allow police to respond to other crimes in our city,” the councillor for St. Norbert-Seine River said.

A spokesman for Brian Bowman said the mayor was not available for comment.

After speaking to “frustrated” police officers, public-safety activist Sel Burrows said he has anecdotal evidence that accused violent offenders are getting bail more often than in the past.

Burrows, co-ordinator of the Point Powerline crime-prevention group in North Point Douglas, raised the issue when he met with Goertzen in June.

“The main message I gave him is when people are using weapons in crimes, we have to use the full force of the law,” he said. “Once somebody is using a knife or a gun or bear spray, we have to have enough justice system power to keep them from harming people.”

Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen sent a letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti asking him to consider amending the Criminal Code to add knives to a provision that makes it harder for someone charged with a gun crime to get bail. (Ethan Cairns / Winnipeg Free Press files)

NDP MLA and justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said Goertzen’s letter is part of an effort by the Progressive Conservatives to “amp up” a narrative of being tough on crime.

The government has cut services and funding, and not done enough to address the root causes of crime and preventative measures, she said.

“You’ve created the conditions in which people are forced to come into contact with the law, and then you’re making it harder for folks to get out,” said Fontaine. “You’re creating the conditions that we have more and more people incarcerated.”

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont wants the province to do more to prevent crime and expand community policing and come up with an anti-gang strategy.

“Why are the PCs waiting until after someone has been stabbed to crack down on violent assaults?” Lamont said in a statement. “This is not the federal government’s problem to solve. This is a Manitoba problem. Tougher bail conditions will not prevent anything.”

The province has committed funding to address root causes and support gang-intervention efforts and community groups such as the Bear Clan, Goertzen said.

— With files from Carol Sanders

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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