Retirement of Toews unlikely to herald law-and-order policy shift: analysts
Vic Toews listens to a speaker during a news conference in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- With the departure of Vic Toews, the Harper Conservatives have lost their most pugnacious and streetwise champion of the law-and-order agenda.
But analysts believe the anti-crime thrust will continue to be a hallmark of the federal government as it prepares for the next election.
Toews, 60, capped weeks of speculation Monday by announcing his retirement effective Tuesday as both MP and public safety minister, indicating he would find work in the private sector.
His legacy: a thoroughly revised Criminal Code featuring more mandatory minimum sentences, an end to house arrest for many crimes, tougher penalties for young offenders and a much higher bar for obtaining a criminal pardon.
Along the way he waged bitter and divisive battles with opposition MPs, criminal law experts and civil society groups who denounced his approach as wrong-headed and overly simplistic.
Toews' emergence as an unwavering crimefighter wasn't a foregone conclusion for political studies professor Paul Thomas, who witnessed his evolution from mild-mannered bureaucrat to combative Manitoba political kingpin.
Thomas first took notice of Toews when he toiled in Manitoba's public service on criminal justice matters and later in the province's constitutional law branch.
"I would describe him as, in many ways, a typical public servant: kind of moderate, maybe a little bland -- cautious about what he would say in terms of his opinion," said Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.
Toews once said his outlook was a mixture of Mennonite philosophy -- a reflection of his upbringing -- and social democratic thinking.
"Nobody would say that comes close to describing the Vic Toews of 2013. He's known as a shrill, hard-edged true Conservative that preaches to the true believers in his following," Thomas said.
"It's a bit ironic. He spent his whole career in public life, and he's anti-government now in his philosophy."
Toews helped unite the fractious political right in Manitoba, securing the support of small-c conservatives frustrated with decades of criminal justice that emphasized rehabilitation over punishment, said Michael Behiels, a history professor at the University of Ottawa.
"There was this hard core of Conservatives out there who said, 'No, no, this has to stop. We're being too soft on crime. And we have to look at the victims more closely. And we have to lock people up and keep them locked up as long as possible."'
Toews saw a chance to make real change in Ottawa, Thomas said.
"When he went off to unite the right and run in federal politics, I think his view was that you needed a genuine Conservative party, you didn't need some faux, mock Conservative party."
Toews quickly earned a reputation as a hard-driving opposition MP and, once Stephen Harper took power in 2006, a minister who enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of politics.
Though well-known in Manitoba, where he served in cabinet, bureaucrats in Ottawa struggled to pronounce his name (it's Taves) as he settled into the justice portfolio. After a stint at Treasury Board, he took over public safety, a job he was said to covet.
His disdain for those he considered soft-on-crime, hug-a-thug opposition MPs was outstripped only by his dislike of the media. Toews rarely met reporters after the House of Commons question period and frequently turned down interview requests.
"I think he had a thin skin," said Thomas.
He recalls seeing Toews in Montreal after publicly saying something that irked the minister. "He just strode over and decided he would tell me."
Toews' flair for criticism got him into difficulty on occasion, notably when he likened opponents of the government's online surveillance bill to allies of child pornographers.
The comment in the Commons touched off a wave of indignation that stoked opposition to the measures, which the government would later quietly abandon.
"Sometimes he's carried it too far and gotten himself in trouble," Thomas said. "But it doesn't seem to bother him. He seems to love combat and love to provoke things."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will continue to claim the tough-on-crime ground staked out by Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, said Behiels, adding he believes the minister's replacement will be less combative.
"They probably will put somebody a bit more diplomatic in the post," he said. "That's my sense, that he had become a liability, for all of the accomplishments."
Two leading candidates in the Conservative caucus also hail from Manitoba -- Shelly Glover, a former police officer, and Candice Bergen, parliamentary secretary to Toews.
"Both have their law-and-order credentials all polished up, they're ready to go step into the job," Thomas said.
The new public safety minister will benefit from the goodwill of loyal supporters who back the Conservative crime agenda.
But Behiels argues the real legacy of Toews will be a massively transformed criminal justice system in which the cost of jailing more criminals disproportionately falls on provincial shoulders.
"This is just starting," he said. "This will come home to roost."