Prime Minister Stephen Harper says tough new anti-crime legislation which cracks down on gangs and extends prison sentences will prevent crime and make Canadian streets safer.

"We got elected because we know the people of Canada want us to take a tougher stand on crime, want us to deal toughly with those who perpetrate these crimes," Harper said during a press conference in Vancouver, where a suspected gang war has led to 18 shootings in recent weeks.

The new legislation would make gang-related killings a first-degree murder offence and give mandatory minimum sentences for drive-by shootings.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced the new legislation at a press conference in Ottawa just before 11 a.m. on Thursday.

"Just a few minutes ago, I tabled legislation in the House of Commons to amend the Criminal Code in the areas of gang violence and organized crime," Nicholson said.

"This legislation will address serious crime issues including gang murders, drive-by shootings and additional protection for police and peace officers."

Under the proposed legislation, drive-by shooting attacks would be punished with prison sentences of between four and 14 years. If such an attack is committed on behalf of a criminal organization, or with a restricted or prohibited firearm, the minimum sentence would increase to five years, Nicholson said.

The proposed legislation would also create new offences for both aggravated assault against a police officer and assault with a weapon against a police officer. These crimes would each carry 14-year sentences.

"We will not tolerate attacks on police or peace officers," Nicholson said at the press conference.

Nicholson said the new measures were part of the Conservative government's overall anti-crime strategy.

"We are moving forward on our justice agenda to address the impact of gangs and organized crime on Canadian families and society," he said.

The minister said he hoped the proposed legislation would be supported by all members of the House of Commons.

"I'm hoping that this will get the support of all political parties," Nicholson said.

"I need support on an ongoing basis with these initiatives and it's certainly my hope that this matter will be expedited and we have other justice measures as well," he added.

The government's attempt to crack down on gang-related crimes comes at a time when Metro Vancouver has been rocked by 18 shootings over the past month. Seven of the shooting victims have died.

Legislation doesn't go far enough, says B.C. official

B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal said he supports the new rules, but he stressed that police need more tools to fight criminals.

"I support the bill," Wally Oppal told CTV's Power Play on Thursday, "but it doesn't go far enough."

Oppal and B.C. Solicitor General John Van Dongen were in Ottawa Thursday lobbying the federal government to make three major changes to the criminal code, which include:

  • Giving police easier access to wiretaps
  • Pairing down disclosure rules to speed up criminal cases
  • Ending the 2-for-1 sentencing practice that gives suspects double credit for time spent in pre-trial custody

"It's fine to have all these added punitive measure and add these offences, but (police) are not catching anyone," said Oppal, adding that "the technology has bypassed the laws."

Oppal said the current wiretapping law was drafted in 1974, long before cell phones and email were invented.

Plus, he added criminals and their defence lawyers now abuse the pre-sentencing credit because they know it will lead to less jail time.

"Criminals learn to manipulate the system, defence lawyers manipulate the system," said Oppal. "It becomes an incentive for them to delay the court case (and) delay the trial."

Additionally, Van Gongen stressed that addressing a backlog of legislative issues is paramount to making Canadian streets safer.

"Unless we fix these 3 issues, then hiring more police officers won't necessarily help our justice system work more effectively," he told Power Play.

Debate about penalties

Critics such as University of Ottawa criminologist Irvin Waller say that more jail time will not curb the kind of violence that the government wants to bring to a screeching halt.

"This is yet again a debate about penalties when it's very clear from looking south of the border that these penalties do not make a lot of difference to the number of people killed," Waller told The Canadian Press earlier this week.

"It's not a debate about what will actually stop them from happening."

Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal MP for Vancouver South and former public safety critic, told CTV Newsnet that while "tougher sentences are appropriate," the government should also be providing police with better resources to fight crime.

Dosanjh said the government must also focus on preventing people from getting involved in criminal activities in the first place.

"We are all tough on crime: Once the crime happens, we want the offenders punished and put away for a long time, particularly the dangerous offenders," he said.

"But we also need to pay attention so that we can prevent that crime and this government has failed on that count."

With files from The Canadian Press