The notwithstanding clause should only be used as a measure of last resort, Canada's justice minister said Tuesday, after Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre suggested he wouldn't hesitate to wield it to enact tougher criminal laws.

Poilievre told the Canadian Police Association in a speech on Monday that he would legislate stiffer penalties for convicted criminals and those charged with crimes who have a record of violence.

“All of my proposals are constitutional, and we will make them constitutional using whatever tools the Constitution allows me to use to make them constitutional," he said.

"I think you know exactly what I mean. They will happen and they will stay in place.”

Asked about whether the Conservative leader was referring to the notwithstanding clause, a spokesman said, "Mr. Poilievre has openly spoken about using that section of Canada’s Constitution in the past … as he did again yesterday."

Sebastian Skamski said Liberals "bend over backwards to defend criminals at every opportunity," but Conservatives "will always defend victims and ensure criminals pay for their crime."

Poilievre routinely accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of failing on criminal justice, and has promised to enact a suite of tough-on-crimes measures and prioritize victims.

Trudeau said Tuesday that Poilievre is proposing to override "the fundamental rights and freedoms and protections of Canadians."

"That's not right and it's not responsible."

@viraniarif says @PierrePoilievre's willingness to use notwithstanding clause threatens rights. #CDNPoli #CPC #NotwithstandingClause

Justice Minister Arif Virani said no federal government has ever used the notwithstanding section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows any level of government to pass laws that override parts of the Charter for up to five years.

"In my respectful perspective, that's actually a good thing," he said Tuesday.

"The notwithstanding clause should be a last option, not a first option. We should have a dialogue between the courts and governments before it is ever invoked."

The Charter lays out the fundamental rights and freedoms in place in Canada, including protection against discrimination and cruel and unusual punishment.

Virani said Poilievre's comments demonstrate "what his true intentions are" when it comes to hitting the override button on constitutional protections of Canadians' rights and freedoms.

He compared Poilievre's proposition to the stance taken by several premiers, who have invoked the clause pre-emptively to usher controversial legislation through their legislatures.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe recently invoked the clause over an update to the province's gender identity policy.

His government introduced a bill last fall requiring youth under 16 to get parental consent if they want to be recognized by preferred names or pronouns at school.

Poilievre is proposing to do away with house arrest for people who have committed serious offences and change the law to ensure that offenders convicted of killing multiple people have to serve their entire sentence in maximum-security prison.

He also says that a Conservative government under his leadership would not allow bail for people with a violent criminal history.

“I will be the democratically elected prime minister, democratically accountable to the people, and they can then make the judgments themselves on whether they think my laws are constitutional, because they will be," he said during Monday's speech.

He later added: "This talk about constitutional rights — I think it’s a constitutional violation of someone’s right to be smashed over the head with a baseball bat."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

Keep reading