Although we do not hear it as often as we did in the 1960s and the 1970s, the question "What does Quebec want?" has been part of the Canadian political landscape for several decades. In relation to the debates that preceded the adoption of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in the 1990s, one might suggest that a more appropriate formulation might be "What did Quebec not want?" the answer being "The Youth Criminal Justice Act." It seems that its predecessor, the Young Offenders Act (YOA), was as much appreciated in Quebec as it was discredited in other parts of the country. How can this be understood?
The review of the YOA lasted nearly a decade, starting some time after the federal election of 1993 and ending with the adoption of the YCJA by Parliament in 2002. In the meantime, significant amendments were brought to the YOA in 1995; reports were made by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force (1996) and a parliamentary committee (Canada, House of Commons 1997); a document stating the federal Justice Minister's intentions was published (Canada, Department of Justice 1998); and the government's bill had to be introduced three times in Parliament (Bills C-68 in March 1999, C-3 in October 1999, and C-7 in February 2001). This review gave rise to considerable debates. Opposition to the government's proposals came from various circles in Canada, including such national organizations as the Canadian Criminal Justice Association (1998). Yet the strongest opposition came from Quebec, where a coalition was formed with a number of organizations and individuals involved in professional work with youth justice and young offenders, mostly in Quebec. Other bodies, such as the Bar of Quebec, opted to express their views without being part of the coalition. These organizations and individuals acted separately and independently from political actors, who were quite active on their own side. The Bloc Qu6b6cois expressed in Parliament views that were supported in Quebec. The National Assembly (Quebec's provincial legislature) also expressed its opposition to changing the law. One may wonder why such a consensus existed in Quebec in favour of the YOA, while some circles elsewhere in Canada vilified this same Act in a way that was referred to as "YOA bashing."
Public policies are not designed ex nihilo. The perception that policy changes are needed arises from perceived inadequacies in, lack of and limits on existing policies. One analyses these policies and builds upon them in an incremental manner to bring whatever corrections and improvements appear necessary. That is true not only for minor policy adjustments, but for major shifts as well. Current policies and practices provide a starting point from which one works; they influence one's frame of reference; the criticisms that are addressed to them stimulate reflection, either in their favour or in favour of changes. They contribute to shaping the views of those significant actors who make decisions about them, first and foremost politicians and civil servants. So do these actors' cultural and professional environments, as well as their political pressures and interests.
In Canada, policies concerning young offenders may vary considerably between provinces. Administration of justice and responsibility for youth justice resources fall within provincial jurisdiction. As a result, the implementation of federal youth justice legislation may look very different from one province to another. Despite a uniform federal legislation, policies and practices that aim at youth crime are not the same throughout Canada. Nor is the cultural and political environment in which they take root. Thus, the basis from which people assess and perceive the need for, and direction of, policy change may vary between regions. Therefore, I will first present some contextual elements that may help us to better understand why the need for a review of the YOA was not felt in Quebec as it was in the rest of Canada; then I will outline the main grounds on which the YCJA was opposed. …