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ANALYSIS | The car theft debate is a battle over slogans and solutions | CBC News

Pierre Poilievre enjoys a punchy phrase, so it’s not surprising that a large part of his response to the rise in car thefts rests on the words “jail, not bail.” According to the Conservative leader, those three words are key to eliminating the “crime and chaos” that has been unleashed.

Lacking their own snappy lines, the Liberals have taken to trying to use Poilievre’s lines against him — arguing, essentially, that slogans are all he has and that the problems of today require much more than a three-word answer. 

“We’re convening this summit because Canadians need serious action,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the opening of Thursday’s meeting of federal, provincial and municipal officials, along with representatives of the insurance and automotive industries. “A catchy slogan won’t stop auto theft. A two-minute YouTube video won’t disrupt organized crime.”

The summit was, if nothing else, a chance for the Liberals to be seen taking the issue seriously. But if they want to beat back Poilievre’s slogans, they need to demonstrate that “serious action.” 

To that end, Thursday’s event suggested how much might go into fully responding to the problem — including amendments to the Criminal Code.

There’s bipartisan consensus on the need for urgency, at least; the Liberals and Conservatives have been competing over the past month to see who can appear more on top of the issue.

The Conservative leader claims the problem can be traced to the change of government in 2015. 

“Since [Trudeau’s] government was elected in 2015, there’s been a 34 per cent nationwide increase in car theft,” Poilievre said this week.

WATCH | Poilievre reacts to news that justice minister’s car was stolen:

Poilievre says it’s ‘hard not to laugh’ at irony of repeated theft of justice minister’s car

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has promised tougher sentences for auto theft, said ‘everybody is at risk now’ after he was asked about the repeated theft of the vehicle assigned to Canada’s justice minister.

The increase is indisputable. But Poilievre’s math doesn’t seem to account for population growth — and his phrasing hides how much the increase is a recent phenomenon.

The rate of car theft began to decline in 2004 and hit a low point in 2013, falling from 550.6 to 206.7. It was more or less flat for eight years after that. In 2015, the rate of motor vehicle theft was 220.7 incidents per 100,000 people. In 2021, it was 218.2.

The numbers jumped in 2022 — to 271.4. For 2023, the numbers are likely to be higher still.

A hangover of the pandemic

At least part of the increase in car theft might be linked to the supply chain problems triggered by the pandemic. Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services with the Equite Association, told CBC’s Power & Politics this week that organized crime rushed in to take advantage of a shortage of vehicles available for purchase.

Oddly enough, that spike in theft coincided with a sudden jump in the political attention paid to it. The phrase “car theft” appears in the parliamentary record an average of 1.6 times per year between 2015 and 2022. In 2023, there were 10 references. In 2024, the phrase has been spoken 66 times already.

The Conservatives are very comfortable fighting over who’s tougher on crime; Poilievre’s response to the car theft problem recalls Stephen Harper’s focus on law and order. A Poilievre government would introduce a new mandatory minimum car theft penalty for a third offence, make people convicted of car theft by way of indictment ineligible for house arrest and, as his refrain goes, make sure people arrested for car theft get “jail, not bail.”

WATCH | Federal government convenes summit on car theft:

Federal government holds auto theft summit but concrete solutions scarce

Political leaders, law enforcement and industry players met in Ottawa to discuss the spiralling scourge of auto theft in Canada, but concrete solutions were scarce.

Such proposals would be easier to assess if it were clear how many car thefts were being committed by people under house arrest or out on bail. (Poilievre’s office did not respond this week to a question about whether they had such data.)

Those suggesting new mandatory minimums also have to answer questions about effectiveness, deterrence and constitutionality. Mandatory minimum sentences have the benefit of seeming responsive; it’s less obvious that they lead directly to reducing crime.

Nonetheless, there seems to be some agreement that punishment has to be part of the solution.

Justice Minister Arif Virani — who is very familiar with the threat of car theft — mocked Poilievre’s proposals this week. But at Thursday’s summit, the government also suggested changes to the Criminal Code were coming and the commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police called for “stiffer penalties.”

A complete answer to the problem will require a lot more than sentencing reform, however.

One summit, many possible solutions

Participants in Thursday’s summit laid out a number of suggestions. More resources for local police. More resources for the Canada Border Services Agency. Efforts to educate car owners. Improved information-sharing across jurisdictions and authorities. Targeted interventions like the Organized Crime Towing and Auto Theft Team in Ontario. Better safety standards for cars (manufacturers, perhaps worried about the added cost, seem less enthusiastic about that one).

Governments are measured by their actions, not their processes, but Thursday’s summit was probably the most interesting and educational public discussion of policy that Ottawa has hosted in years.

The Conservatives and Liberals — along with every informed expert — are also aligned on the need to do something about the ability of criminal organizations to export stolen cars through Canada’s ports. Border officials who have been primarily focused on what’s coming in now need to look closer at what’s going out.

In the second of his two news conferences about car theft this week, Poilievre said the government should purchase new scanners for Canada’s major ports so that more shipping containers can be checked. Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc was unimpressed.

WATCH | OPP commissioner explains how the car theft market works:

OPP commissioner breaks down how the ‘complex’ auto theft market works

During a summit in Ottawa on auto theft, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique explained the process of stealing a car, and says that it puts lives in danger.

“Mr. Poilievre just doesn’t have a monopoly on the idea that there’s some technology that can help the Canada Border Services Agency,” LeBlanc said Wednesday, after announcing new funding for the CBSA. “We’ve been talking to CBSA officials for months about this.”

Celyeste Power, president of the Insurance Board of Canada, said Thursday that U.S. officials cite “data analytics” and partnerships with other agencies as their best tools for disrupting criminal networks and exports of stolen vehicles. And then there are the even less exciting ideas.

“In Canada, export documents can be amended two days after a ship sets sail,” Power noted. “In the U.S., Customs and Border Protection requires the exporter of a vehicle to provide all export documents and the vehicle 72 hours prior to the export.”

In the United States, an estimated 10 per cent of stolen cars are exported, Power said. In Canada, that figure is over 50 per cent.

“Better Paperwork!” isn’t much of a slogan. But if Canadian politicians are serious about fighting car theft, it might have to be part of the solution.

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