OTTAWA — A former leader of the Conservatives in the Senate is blasting her erstwhile colleagues for spearheading a move to gut a bill aimed at cracking down on impaired driving.
Marjory LeBreton, whose daughter and grandson were tragically killed by a drunk driver 22 years ago, says she’s “appalled” that her former colleagues have succeeded in stripping the centrepiece measure out of Bill C-46.
The deleted provision would authorize police to conduct random roadside breathalyzer tests, without needing to have reasonable grounds to suspect the driver may be impaired by alcohol.
LeBreton noted that an identical measure was championed by former Conservative public safety minister Steven Blaney in a private member’s bill just two years ago, with the support of some of the same senators who now argue it’s unconstitutional. His bill received unanimous approval in principle from all parties in the House of Commons but did not proceed beyond that stage.
“I must tell you in all honesty that I am profoundly disappointed by the actions and words of some of my former colleagues in the Senate and wonder how it is that some have completely reversed themselves on the issue of mandatory alcohol screening,” LeBreton told The Canadian Press in an email.
LeBreton had particularly harsh words for Conservative Sen. Denise Batters, who last month persuaded her Conservative colleagues, plus one Liberal independent, on the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee to delete the roadside testing measure from the bill.
At the time, Batters argued that a “glut” of impaired driving cases has already resulted in major court delays that have caused other more serious cases to be dismissed — a situation she predicted would only be made worse by approving the constitutionally questionable provision on random alcohol testing in C-46.
“I know we don’t want to see many more serious criminal charges like murder, sexual assault, serious child abuse cases dismissed because of the massive amount of charter challenges brought because of the random alcohol testing provisions in this bill,” Batters told the committee.
LeBreton said she was “shocked and saddened by the insensitivity” of Batters’ words.
“For a senator and a lawyer, to cite ‘more serious criminal charges’ in relation to impaired driving proves yet again that our society and, unfortunately, some of our legislators refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of this preventable crime,” she said.
“I would like to remind my former colleague that my daughter and my grandson, who were killed by a drunk driver in 1996, are just as dead as those victims who are dead as a result of her ‘more serious’ crime of ‘murder.'”
An attempt earlier this week by independent Sen. Marc Gold to reinstate the provision was defeated on a tie vote of 38-38. Twenty-two Conservative senators voted against reinstatement, while just two supported it.
And on Thursday, senators approved Bill C-46, as amended without the measure, in a voice vote.
It will now go back to the House of Commons, where the Liberal government has already indicated it will reject the deletion of the random roadside testing provision. Senators will then have to decide whether to bow to the will of the elected chamber or dig in for a protracted parliamentary battle.
Constitutional experts are divided on the issue, with some agreeing the provision would likely be struck down as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and others, including pre-eminent constitutional scholar Peter Hogg, saying it would not.
Hogg has argued that the benefit to public safety would be so strong that a court would find the provision to be a justifiable infringement of charter rights.
LeBreton, who as government leader in the Senate was a member of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet from 2006-2013, also doubted a charter challenge would succeed.
“The reality is that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are already subject to mandatory screening many times as they go about their lives, whether at airports, entering government buildings, crossing the border or attending pubic events,” said LeBreton, who retired from the Senate in 2015.
“I doubt that any Canadian court would rule that these mandatory searches violate one’s charter rights.”
To those who contend the existing law on roadside testing, which requires police to have reasonable grounds to suspect alcohol impairment, is working, LeBreton said she’d ask them “if they consider about 1,000 deaths and 60,000 injuries every year (resulting from impaired driving) as a law that is ‘working.'”
New Zealand has had mandatory alcohol screening for years and a 2003 study found it’s resulted in a 54 per cent decrease in serious and fatal car crashes, LeBreton said, adding that Ireland has seen a similar reduction since adopting mandatory screening in 2006, along with a big drop in the number of impaired driving charges.
Bill C-46 is a companion bill to C-45, the government’s bill to legalize recreational cannabis. However, the roadside testing provision was intended to apply only to alcohol.
Liberals suspect Conservative senators’ newfound opposition to the provision has more to do with trying to hold up the government’s plan to legalize cannabis by this summer rather than with its constitutionality.
While it would prefer to implement the two bills at the same time, the government has said it will push ahead with legalization without the stiffer impaired driving laws if need be — a position that’s been slammed by Conservative MPs in the Commons.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press
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