OTTAWA - Fraudsters and other white-collar criminals would face mandatory minimum jail terms, longer sentences and confiscation of assets under new legislation the Harper government plans to introduce this fall.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson made the announcement Tuesday and blamed the opposition parties for why measures weren't introduced earlier.
"I don't have to tell you how difficult it is to get anything passed in the criminal justice area in a minority parliament," he said.
"It's not a priority with any three of them."
The allegation drew a swift rebuke from Liberal justice critic Dominic LeBlanc, who accused the government of using victims as props for political purposes. LeBlanc said his party agrees with the general thrust of the government's proposals.
"We wish the minister would actually introduce legislation ... and not call their ninth news conference on the same topic," the MP said.
Nicholson made his announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons, standing in front of several victims of white-collar crime.
Although the minister called the bill just the first step in the government's crackdown, he gave no details of the range of minimum sentences he has in mind, which kind of fraud would apply, or how penalties would be meted out.
He said the government is also planning to change the rule that allows white-collar criminals to get parole after serving just one-sixth of their sentence.
And it would allow for longer sentences in the case of aggravating circumstances.
"Canadians lose faith in the criminal justice system when they feel that the punishment does not fit the crime," Nicholson said.
Canada has long been criticized for lack of rigour in prosecuting financial crime. Many high-profile cases were never brought to trial and others, including former newspaper baron Conrad Black and executives of Nortel Networks, were first charged in the United States.
A notable exception was the seven-year sentence handed to theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky in August for swindling investors, although the case took 11 years to resolve.
And that's the key problem, said representatives of about a dozen victims' groups, who met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper before the minister's announcement.
They claimed incidents of fraud are increasing and that the RCMP and other police forces appear to be overmatched by clever Ponzi schemes and stock manipulations.
The renewed focus on white-collar crime comes after Montreal investment dealer Earl Jones was charged with fraud in July for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme that swindled about 150 investors of at least $30 million.
As well, two Alberta men were charged Monday with operating another Ponzi-type scheme that netted about $100 million in investments.
Financial analyst Diane Urquhart, who is teaming up with former Toronto police fraud detective Gary Logan in pressing for more enforcement, said she agreed with the stiffer sentences. But she added that Quebec's decision to spend an additional $6 million annually on hiring more fraud officers was more effective.
"These sentences mean nothing unless (enforcement) is stepped up," she said. "I'm highly confident with experts that are given the authority to go at these fraudsters at every level, that's what's required to be effective."
Victims' groups called on Ottawa to establish and fund an independent Securities Crime Unit. They also urged provincial governments to sign on to the federal government's national regulator proposal so that fraudsters can be more easily detected.
Some also want the government to mandate that investment firms acquire insurance that would benefit victims in cases of fraud.
Joey Davis, who says his mother lost $200,000 by investing with Earl Jones, backed the sentencing initiative. But he was angry it had taken the government so long to take note of the impact of white-collar crime.
"We're not just thousands, we're millions, millions of Canadians who have been defrauded," he said.
He described the effect on his mother as devastating. "You work all your life and save for retirement years," and then all is lost, he said.