Madam Speaker, Bill C-408 addresses an important issue for many Canadians. It proposes to eliminate the term “illegitimate” in two federal statutes, the criminal code and the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act.
Before I turn to an examination of the bill, I would first like to commend the hon. member for his dedication and his commitment to the eradication of this antiquated concept and language from federal law. He has continued to bring this important issue before the House in a number of private member's bills over the passage of several years. His hard work and his personal commitment to the belief that all Canadian children deserve the same protection under law and to be treated with the same dignity by the law is very much appreciated by Canadians.
I know I share the view of many in the House in thanking him for his role and his contribution. Children should be included in and protected by our laws without regard to the relationship of their parents. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that the concept of illegitimacy no longer exists in any federal law.
The issue is not new to the House. The Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, that was enacted by parliament in June 2000, accomplished several goals, one of which was removing the last remaining references to illegitimacy in seven federal statutes, including the second statute proposed for amendment in Bill C-408. These amendments specifically address the concerns of the hon. member and that he had previously brought before the House.
Let me point out that these amendments in the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act to remove references to illegitimacy do not actually change the substance of the law. The seven statutes included all children. The references to illegitimate children that have now been removed were actually the earlier attempts of the House to ensure that children born to unmarried parents were included in eligibility for benefits.
Until recently, if a specific statute referred to the child of a person, some doubt existed in law about whether this referred only to children born to married parents. In order to make it clear that the law was intended to include all children, the acts were amended many years ago to specify that a child meant both legitimate and illegitimate children but this was in an effort to be inclusive in providing benefits.
More recently, with new international commitments and changes in our law, these specific references are no longer legally necessary. It is now clear in law that a reference to a child of a person would include any child, whether the parents were married or unmarried. Clearly the goal of this government is similar to that of governments that passed those earlier amendments; that is, all children, regardless of the relationship of their parents, deserve the same protection and treatment under the law. I have no doubt that all members support this worthy goal.
With more modern law, we can now remove the references in our statutes to the concept of illegitimacy without risking some children being left out of legal protections. Removing these references will help in turn to eradicating any discrimination or differentiation in the treatment for children.
The Government of Canada continues to emphasize the importance of families and of supporting families as set out in the Speech from the Throne last year. The government means that all families with children are important--married couples, common law couples and lone parents--so that no Canadian children will be stigmatized by something so clearly not within their control.
Bill C-408 supports the work accomplished in the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act. The first provision of the bill proposes an amendment to the criminal code to change the definition of child to remove the reference to an illegitimate child. This amendment addresses a definition which was repealed by Bill C-15A and was passed by the House last fall.
The second provision of Bill C-408 would bring the amendment made in the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act to the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act into force as of December 31, 2001. The reference in the statute to legitimate and illegitimate descendants in the definition of the “Inuk of Fort George” or the “Inuit of Fort George” was removed.
It is true that it has not yet been brought into force. However this is for a good reason. The Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act is a federal statute based on negotiated agreements: the James Bay and northern Quebec agreement and the northeastern Quebec agreement. Therefore the amendments to this act must be discussed with the Cree, the Naskapi and the Inuit prior to being brought into force. These discussions were raised at both the House standing committee and the committee of the Senate during the passage of the modernization act.
I understand from officials of my colleague, the hon. Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, that consultations with the Inuit are underway. It is hoped that some agreement is possible through that process, following which the amendment would be brought into force. However it is clear I am sure to members of the House that bringing this provision into force at this time might jeopardize that ongoing process.
Although the reference to legitimate and illegitimate may unfortunately remain in one statute for a short while longer, the effect on the children covered by the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act would not change; that is, they would continue to be included.
In closing let me emphasize that the government believes that there is no longer any place in federal legislation for the use of language such as “illegitimate” or “children born out of wedlock”, with two small exceptions, one of which is currently under consideration by the Senate in Bill C-15A, federal law no longer distinguishes between children on that basis, and this last remaining stigma of another era will finally be gone.
The intention of this bill is laudable and the government will be acting to implement its intent.