House of Commons Hansard #235 of the 35th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was rail.

Topics

The House resumed from June 6 consideration of the motion that Bill C-277, an act to amend the Criminal Code (genital mutilation of female persons), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Reform

Val Meredith Surrey—White Rock—South Langley, BC

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-277 is technically an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada dealing with the subject of female genital mutilation. This issue raises a wide variety of concerns: legal, medical, immigration and multicultural. All of these issues must be addressed when dealing with Bill C-277.

The most important issue the bill raises is that of clashing cultural values. How tolerant is a multicultural country like Canada supposed to be in accepting the cultural values of immigrants? As a general rule, Canada has been one of the most tolerant nations in accepting and encouraging differing value systems.

However, this acceptance has not and cannot be absolute. For example, Canada has not accepted polygamy as an acceptable way of life, even though it is common practice in many nations. Some might argue our refusal to accept polygamy is discriminatory. My response to such criticism is simple. If you do not like the rules we play by in Canada, do not come to our country.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees come to our nation every year to start a new and better life, but when they come to our country they agree to play by our rules. Our rules say one cannot have more than one spouse and, more important, that one does not mutilate little girls. Female circumcision is just that, mutilation.

There is no religion in the world that prescribes female circumcision as part of its doctrine. It is rather a cultural tradition in some countries in northern and eastern Africa. Because Canada accepts immigrants from all over the world, it is an issue that now is a concern for Canadian law makers.

During the first hour of debate on this bill, members from all parties provided examples of why this is an issue in Canada. While I will not repeat the examples, suffice it to say there appears to be a body of evidence that female genital mutilation is taking place in Canada today. While there appears to be a fairly substantial body of evidence that female genital mutilation is occurring in Canada, there has never been a prosecution of anyone involved in such a procedure. Why?

The bill presented to the House by my colleague from Quebec would make anyone who commits genital mutilation guilty of an indictable offence. As well, anyone who aids, abets, counsels or procures the performance of female genital mutilation would be similarly guilty of an indictable offence.

The members from the government who spoke on the bill believe more counselling is needed and if criminal charges are necessary they can be covered by existing legislation.

What better way of counselling anyone who comes from a culture that practises female genital mutilation than by having a section in the Criminal Code by which if anyone commits female genital mutilation or even aids, abets, counsels or procures such an act he or she is guilty of a serious crime?

If we are serious about eliminating this practice that is the message we should be sending to these communities. I ask the government members who say current legislation already covers this act why there has never been a prosecution of such an act in Canada. If there ever is a prosecution under the assault causing bodily harm provisions of the Criminal Code, the defence would be arguing there never was any criminal intent to cause bodily harm.

By making this a specific offence, as laid out in Bill C-277, all the crown would have to prove is that those charged knowingly participated in female genital mutilation.

I have to agree with the members for Calgary Southeast and Bellechasse who called for an increased maximum sentence. If, as

Liberal members suggest, charges could be laid under the assault causing bodily harm provisions of the code, the maximum penalty for committing this specific crime of female genital mutilation should be the same as the 10-year maximum that exists for assault causing bodily harm.

Let us not make any bones about it, female genital mutilation is a serious offence committed against young girls in the 10 to 12-year range. It is, in effect, extreme child abuse.

While I am generally reluctant to give the provincial legislatures any advice on how to run their affairs, I will make an exception here. I strongly believe that once Parliament passes Bill C-277 or similar legislation the provinces should make amendments to their child protection acts. These amendments should make the reporting of female genital mutilation mandatory for those employed in health, education and social service professions.

It is important the House send a clear and strong message to everyone in Canada that anyone involved in the practice of female genital mutilation is committing a serious crime. However, I believe that before we get to that stage, Bill C-277 should be given a complete hearing at the committee stage. I would like someone to appear before the justice committee and explain why female genital mutilation should not be criminalized. I would like to be there and hear somebody attempt to defend this practice. I would like to hear someone explain to Canadian parliamentarians why such acts should be allowed to continue in Canada.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion the committee would be unable to find anyone who would publicly justify female genital mutilation. How does one possibly defend the indefensible?

While I believe the issue should be reviewed by the committee, I will not even attempt to give the pretence that my mind can be changed. Female genital mutilation is a violent sexual assault committed against young children under the pretence of a cultural value.

Whether it is a traditional culture value is irrelevant. Can anyone imagine if descendants of the Aztec or Mayan cultures came to Canada and wanted to revive the old cultural tradition of human sacrifice? How about the old tradition of 17th century North Americans of burning women suspected of being witches at the stake? Of course Canadians would never support such things. It is outrageous to even think about it, as is the ritualistic, violent sexual assault of little girls. Some cultural traditions deserve to be extinguished. This is one of them.

Bill C-277 is a good step in making sure this practice never gains a foothold in our country. By supporting Bill C-277 we send a message to those communities that still practise this terrible tradition that such acts will not be tolerated in Canada.

I am happy I do not share the guilt members opposite seem to be racked with when dealing with cross-cultural conflicts. I take pride in having this opportunity to denounce the barbaric act of female genital mutilation and I will stand with those members who support this legislation at second and third reading.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:10 a.m.

Bloc

Pauline Picard Drummond, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by congratulating my colleague, the hon. member for Québec, for her courage and tenacity. Courage because she rose to demand new legislation on the practice of genital mutilation. Tenacity, because she continued to push for her bill despite a negative response from the Minister of Justice, since she was convinced that it was both appropriate and necessary.

I am therefore pleased to speak in this debate in support of Bill C-277, since I share the belief of my colleague and the large majority of women and men across Canada and in Quebec that the current legislation must be clarified and reinforced in order to protect women from these barbaric acts.

I share her conviction that the Minister of Justice's great sense of responsibility will lead him to concur that such a modification to the Criminal Code will be beneficial and to revise the decision he reached in April 1994.

The Minister of Justice's decision not to criminalize excision was based on two arguments: charges may be laid against those practicing excision under the present provisions of the legislation, and the intent is to focus on prevention.

I feel that those two arguments are too weak to justify the decision not to make any changes to the Criminal Code. I have nothing against prevention and information, far from it; one cannot be against what is right, but as Machiavelli said many, many years ago, virtue alone has no effect on man unless it is reinforced by a degree of deterrence.

Prevention is fine, but above all specific legislation needs to be passed to prohibit the practice of mutilating the genitals of women and girls. After all, what is there to prevent after the harm has been done?

At present, the Criminal Code prohibits anyone from assaulting, causing bodily harm to or killing another human being. The minister contends that these provisions are enough to prohibit all kinds of genital mutilations. I think not, because this legislation is too vague and does not deal specifically enough with excision. A person who performs or causes this kind of mutilation to be performed could use religious and particularly cultural arguments to justify this practice. Legislation such as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms require that the various cultures be recognized and promoted.

It so happens that genital mutilation is a standard in many cultures, including Africa and Asia.

I do not think we all have to be lawyers to understand that the existing legislation is not as efficient as the minister would have us believe. Several provisions are likely to discourage a crown prosecutor from preferring charges or a judge from convicting to the full extent of the law in such instances, however few they may be.

Education and prevention are fine, but that is just not enough. Monitoring needs to be instituted to find, denounce and, more importantly, punish offenders for real.

Action is required. Existing provisions do not prevent such acts from being committed. Also, one can seriously question the effectiveness of a prevention policy consisting merely in information. The only choice left is for the legislator to make a special law to unequivocally criminalize the practice of such mutilations.

Bill C-277 is not that complex. It does not call for a complete overhaul of the system. It is just a few lines long. And let me quote the proposed amendment to be added after section 244. It reads as follows:

A person who: a ) excises or otherwise mutilates, in whole or in part, the labia majora, labia minora or clitoris of a female person; or b ) aids, abets, counsels or procures the performance by another person of any of the acts described in paragraph ( a ) is guilty of an indictable offence andliable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

That is all. Two small paragraphs. That is all we need to settle this matter once and for all. I do not understand why the minister is reluctant to pass a bill that is so short but that would reinforce the current Criminal Code and make it much more of a deterrent.

Allow me to speak of this issue in a little more detail. According to studies published in 1993-94, between 85 million and 114 million of the women alive at that time had undergone genital mutilation.

According to some figures, the number of genital mutilation cases has increased by 2 million a year in nearly 40 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These procedures are performed on girls aged 4 to 10 on average. That is appalling.

Although impressive, these figures do not say anything about the trauma experienced by these girls, most of whom are quite young. They do not say anything about the pain suffered both during and after these mutilations or on the health problems many of the victims will face for the rest of their lives.

Often performed in unsanitary conditions by people without any real medical knowledge, these mutilations can have many adverse consequences, including haemorrhages, incontinence, abscesses, infections, traumas, shock and infertility.

Those who perform these procedures use improperly sterilized tools, if not plain kitchen knives. According to a document from the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, sugar, eggs, thorns and palm ribs are also used.

Very painful and often performed without anaesthesia, these irreversible procedures often result in traumas as well as sexual and psychological complications for the victims.

I do not think I need to continue describing this practice to give members a good understanding of what we are dealing with.

This practice is clearly unacceptable and should never be condoned. We must also ensure that those who perform these procedures are severely punished. Unfortunately, as I pointed out earlier, current legal provisions do not have enough teeth to be 100 per cent effective. We must ensure that this practice is no longer used in our society. The current legislation does not achieve that goal; prevention alone is not enough. However, Bill C-277 would certainly do it.

We could talk for a long time about the benefits and the merits of such a bill. But what is important is to understand that, in a country that claims to be democratic, these religious, cultural or other traditions are indefensible and reprehensible. As a self respecting society claiming to protect its individual members, it is immoral to condone such shameful atrocities.

Yet, and unfortunately so, this is what the Minister of Justice did by rejecting the suggestion to amend the Criminal Code so as to explicitly prohibit excision.

Bill C-277, which was introduced by the hon. member for Québec, provides an opportunity to correct the situation, once and for all, in a simple and efficient manner. France, Great Britain and Sweden have already outlawed that practice, while Norway and several American states have strengthened their legislation to that effect. The time has come for us to take concrete action. It must be made clear to Canadians and those who come to our country that genital mutilation is not only unacceptable as a matter of principle, but also not accepted and severely punished, since it is in fact a crime.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Stan Dromisky Thunder Bay—Atikokan, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to address the House regarding Bill C-277, an act to amend the Criminal Code as it pertains to the genital mutilation of female persons, proposed by the hon. member for Québec.

The bill aims to make persons who perform female genital mutilation or who aid, abet, counsel or procure the performance by another person of female genital mutilation guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

I state from the outset my personal repulsion of this practice. It is without a doubt a practice which causes great harm. However, we must not allow our disgust with the practice to cloud our reasoning about the member's proposed bill as an effective means of addressing this problem.

As for the cultural practices in other lands it is out of our scope to dictate what should or should not be included in their criminal codes. Societies practising female genital mutilation will change their behaviour only on understanding that the intent behind their action can be achieved by other less harmful means.

Female genital mutilation is a practice which inflicts harm on an estimated 85 million to 115 million girls and women, with about two million girls being subjected to this ritual annually worldwide.

There is no doubt that the practice can prove very harmful to the health of a baby girl and eventually of the woman. There is an indisputable medical link between female genital mutilation and a myriad of short and long term health consequences. Some have already been mentioned such as severe haemorrhaging, shock, infections, infertility, urine retention, sexual dysfunction, difficulties with child birth and even death.

As I mentioned earlier, this well intentioned bill poses certain problems. The Minister of Justice indicated in March he was of the opinion that an amendment to the Criminal Code was not necessary at this time. The minister informed members of the House that there are those who are knowledgeably involved who believe amending the Criminal Code at this time could inadvertently drive the practice even further underground, and the government agrees. Instead the government prefers to engage in a comprehensive educational campaign which outlines the health risk of the procedure and the criminality of the practice.

All hon. members should be made aware the Criminal Code of Canada does have a provision which could cover those who practice female genital mutilation. Presently sections of the code which apply include assault causing bodily harm, section 267, unlawfully causing bodily harm, section 269, and aggravated assault, section 268, all of which are indictable offences with maximum sentences of between 10 and 14 years. Section 268 refers to the situation in which a person wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life of the complainant.

There are other sections of the Criminal Code which could be used to prosecute either the person performing the procedure or the parents for their part in arranging for it to be carried out. Also, a recent amendment to the code aims to address situations in which a Canadian resident is taken from the country with the purpose of committing an act against him or her which would ordinarily be an offence if committed in Canada. This section of the code provides for a maximum sentence of five years for an indictable offence.

Over and above existing Criminal Code provisions, the hon. member should know Ontario and Quebec have child protection laws which allow for a child to be taken into the custody of the province should reasonable suspicion exist that she may be subjected to female genital mutilation either in Canada or abroad. It is apparent that the Canadian Criminal Code already provides for the necessary measures to prosecute those persons perpetrating female genital mutilation.

Instead we must concentrate on educating the public but we must also educate the police, crown attorneys and the medical professions by informing them that female genital mutilation constitutes criminal behaviour and as such must be dealt with accordingly. We will work together and we must work together with the above stakeholders in order to ensure existing laws are enforced in this respect.

On the practice of female genital mutilation from a global perspective, I firmly believe we must not lose sight of the fact that denouncing the practice can make some of us feel better and self-righteous but certainly does not solve the problem worldwide.

The director general to the World Health Organization's global commission on women's health indicates that the purpose of the organization should not be to criticize and condemn; however, nor should we remain passive.

We know female genital mutilation is painful and can have dire health consequences. However, we must also take into account that human behaviours and cultural values, no matter how senseless or harmful they appear in light of our personal and cultural perspectives, do have a meaning for those who practice them.

The key is to convince people they can give up a certain practice without compromising the important ideals cherished by their cultures. Also instrumental is the need to impart on adherence of the practice the great health risk that can result from this diabolical practice.

Parents across the globe are similar in that ultimately they want what is in the best interests of their children. If they are presented with credible options, an alternative to female genital mutilation in a way that takes into account their own social, cultural and economic environments, we will then be able to find a global solution.

I thank the member for Quebec for bringing this crucial issue to the attention of the House.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

Pierrette Venne Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, let me ask you this question: If the justice minister were a woman, do you not think that we would already have a bill amending the Criminal Code and explicitly prohibiting the genital mutilation of female persons?

Were it not for the initiative of the hon. member for Québec, women would still be waiting for a bill to protect the victims of such a barbaric and cruel practice. Genital mutilation of female persons is one of the most harmful forms of violence against young girls and it is a terrible violation of their fundamental right to physical integrity.

Just thinking of such an atrocity totally overwhelms me with horror and disgust and I must warn the Minister of Justice that he is likely to find the description I am about to give extremely disturbing. Perhaps after hearing it he will better understand the kind of butchery being practiced throughout the world, including Canada and Quebec.

There are three forms of mutilation carried out. I will present them in order of degree. The first, removal of the prepuce of the clitoris; the second, excision, which involves removing the entire clitoris and often the adjacent portions of the labia minora; the third, infibulation, which involves excising the entire clitoris, the labia minora and a portion of the labia majora.

When infibulation is performed, both sides of the vulva are closed over the vagina, leaving a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. In infibulation, the vaginal orifice is closed either with thorns or catgut sutures. The gaping raw edges of the labia majora are held together until scar tissue forms, thus closing up the vagina except for a narrow orifice which is kept open with a small piece of wood or reed.

The child's legs are then bound together. The little girl is immobilized for several weeks or until the tissues have healed. To enable infibulated women to have sexual relations, it is necessary to open the orifice with an incision which is further enlarged when they give birth. Often they are sewn up again afterwards, at the husband's request.

There is none so deaf as those who will not hear. The Minister of Justice was definitely not listening when in December 1994, on the tragic anniversary of the massacre at the École Polytechnique, I and several of my colleagues emphatically condemned this odious practice.

This barbaric procedure has now been imported to Canada and Quebec. Our doctors are seeing an increasing number of young girls with health problems related to genital mutilation. It will soon be one year since we last discussed this in the House, and so far the Minister of Justice has done nothing to stop this practice. I hope that he will at least support the representations of my colleague, the hon. member for Québec, who has taken the trouble to table a bill prohibiting genital mutilation.

The Minister of Justice lately mentioned a series of bills tabled by his government to help victims, and the list goes: C-37, C-41, C-42 and C-45, and so forth. An impressive body of legislation, whose effectiveness remains to be seen.

The agenda of the Department of Justice is quite full. But I warn the minister that: "Grasp all, lose all". Some of the legislative measures are so far off the goal set by the government that we might be led to believe that the Minister of Justice has undertaken a Sisyphean task.

In November 1994, the Quebec Minister of Justice, Paul Bégin, demanded that his federal counterpart prohibit genital mutilation and amend the Criminal Code accordingly. Sweden, Belgium, Norway, the United Kingdom and some American States have already passed legislation prohibiting genital mutilation.

The Minister of Justice had the gall to answer that the sections of the Criminal Code dealing with assault were sufficient to condemn a person guilty of practising excision. Genital mutilation is much more than just assault, it is torture, butchery and an unqualifiable violation of a human person.

The House managed to pass on the double a bill to protect victims and facilitate the arrest of the guilty parties. Thanks to the support of the official opposition, Bill C-104 on DNA passed through all stages on the same day, June 22 of this year. The Minister of Justice is always willing to play Lancelot when he knows that a bill will get unanimous support. It is easy to preach for virtue. It is something else to make political hay out of it.

Where is the fearless Lancelot in today's debate? He is dragging his feet, he is consulting. Last summer our Don Quixote of public security thought that it would be useful to organize an information session on mutilation of women's genital organs for interested members. Guests of the Minister of Justice were Eunadie Johnson and Fadumo Dirie, cochairpersons of the Ontario task force on the prevention of genital mutilation of female persons.

The minister expected that Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Dirie would concur with his views on the risk of unilateral legislation dealing specifically with genital mutilation. He was reluctant to introduce a bill because he thought such an action would push that practice further underground.

But, lo and behold, both guests answered yes to the question of whether a specific piece of legislation would send a clear message to communities which practice mutilation. A criminal code amendment would demonstrate that our society considers that practice unacceptable and that if it is deemed acceptable in other countries, it is not so in Canada or in Quebec.

After the meeting, the Minister of Justice admitted he was not so sure any more about his position. Today, the bill before the House is not a government bill, but a bill introduced by one of my Bloc Quebecois colleagues. That speaks for itself. On this side of the House, we dare to act according to our beliefs. I urged the Minister of Justice to at least support the bill presented by the hon. member

for Québec, if he did not have the courage to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Code.

I request the same thing from all members. We should rise above partisanship and indeed do as we say, as we began to do some time ago with private members' bills.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

Is it the House ready for the question?

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

Question!

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

Accordingly, this bill is referred to the standing committee on justice and legal affairs.

(Motion agreed to, bill read the second time and referred to a committee.)

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Peter Milliken Kingston and the Islands, ON

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order, I think you would find unanimous consent to suspend the sitting until twelve o'clock.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

Is there unanimous consent to suspend the House until twelve o'clock?

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

(The sitting of the House was suspended at 11.37 a.m.)

The House resumed at noon.

On the Order:

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