Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for the opportunity to participate in this study.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is the national association of evangelical Christians in Canada. Our affiliates include 45 denominations, more than 65 ministry organizations and 35 post-secondary institutions. Established in 1964, EFC provides a national forum for Canada's four million evangelicals and a constructive voice for biblical principles in life and society.
Our approach to the issues we will address in Bill C-75 is based on biblical principles that teach respect for human life and dignity, care for the vulnerable, and freedom of religion, principles that are also reflected in Canadian law and policy.
Bill C-75 proposes a significant number of changes to the Criminal Code, including the hybridization of a number of Criminal Code offences. This would allow, as you know, some serious indictable offences to be treated as relatively minor summary offences at the discretion of the Crown. It's on this element of the bill that I have been asked to provide comments. Our concerns in this regard are limited to a few key areas.
Criminal laws give expression to the norms that undergird a society. They both express and reinforce the basic commitments that bind a society together. It is often said that the law is a teacher. Amendments to the Criminal Code can signal or imply a shift in our society's core principles or their interpretation, which is sometimes appropriate, but this also means we must carefully consider the implications of any changes we make.
The categorization of a criminal offence tends to indicate the seriousness of the conduct it addresses. Hybridization suggests that an offence can now be considered less of a violation of human dignity, less of a threat to society or social cohesion, and less harmful to the vulnerable among us. Respectfully, we submit that to hybridize some of the offences proposed in this bill would send the wrong message. We understand that one of the objectives of hybridization is to reduce delays in the criminal justice system, but to paraphrase what Mr. Geoff Cowper told this committee last week, our goal should be not to reduce delays but to deliver justice in a timely way that's responsive to the public interest, to the needs of the victim and to the community generally.
When Bill C-75 proposes a greater maximum penalty for repeated intimate partner violence—and I hear the concerns of my co-panellists about recidivism—this communicates that this is an offence the government considers to be very serious, that violence is unacceptable and is to be deterred with severe penalty. This is a good message.
Conversely, when the bill proposed to hybridize offences related to human trafficking, sexual exploitation, or the assault of religious officiants, it sends the message, whether intended or not, that these offences are of lesser concern. Bill C-75 proposes to hybridize subsection 176(1) of the Criminal Code, which deals with obstructing or violence to an officiating clergy. Obstructing or assaulting a religious official who is about to perform religious duties strikes directly at the heart of religious belief and practice. Religious officials are not merely acting as individuals when they're carrying out their religious duties; they are representatives of the broader community of faith.
Last year, more than 65 interfaith leaders wrote to the Minister of Justice expressing our deep concern with the repeal of the section 176 protections that were proposed in Bill C-51. We wrote, “The deliberate assault of a religious official outside a house of worship is a different kind of offence from other public disturbances, assaults, threats or incitement to hatred. An offence against a people at worship reverberates through the community and touches every member.”
Offences against religious officials and people at worship are unique in character, in significance and in motivation, and in a climate of increasing incidence of hate, specifically at and against places of worship, we believe it's essential to maintain the focused protection that section 176 offers religious leaders. We are grateful that this committee heard the concerns of religious Canadians and recommended that section 176 not be repealed but instead be revised to be more inclusive of all religious officials. We ask the committee, in keeping with that same understanding and responsiveness to the concerns of religious Canadians, to recommend that this offence not be hybridized in Bill C-75.
You heard compelling testimony last night of the realities of human trafficking and all forms of sexual exploitation, and the devastating impact of these crimes on their victims. These crimes constitute a grave violation of human rights, including the rights of women and children to live free from violence, and it's essential that the gravity of these offences be consistently reflected in our laws and policies. We know and have known for years that in Canada it is mainly Canadian women and girls who are trafficked, and they're being trafficked into the commercial sex trade.
Ninety-five per cent of all cases in Canada in which trafficking charges have been laid in the last 12 years were domestic and primarily involved sexual exploitation. StatsCan's latest report says that 95% of trafficking victims are female, 72% are under the age of 25 and one in four victims is under the age of 18.
We're pleased that this government is taking action on human trafficking and is consulting on the development of the new national action plan. We're also eagerly awaiting this committee's report out of its study on human trafficking.
We're disappointed that Bill C-75 proposes to hybridize certain offences related to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. These other initiatives demonstrate that this government rightly considers these crimes to be worthy of significant legislative and policy focus, but the proposed hybridization of related offences seems to send a conflicting message.
In particular, we note the bill's hybridization of the following:
The first is section 210 on keeping a common bawdy house. This provision allows law enforcement to address the ownership and operation of brothels, which are often loosely disguised as spas, holistic centres or massage parlours, in which individuals are frequently held, exploited or trafficked. The naming and continued inclusion in the Criminal Code of such a place is significant, because the existence and operation of these places can legitimize the hold, power and influence of a pimp, trafficker or exploiter over the exploited.
As I was preparing for this, I spoke with a friend and colleague who has first-hand experiential knowledge of how these facilities operate. She explained that pimps and traffickers use places like holistic centres and massage parlours with the full knowledge of the owner, and that placing their girls in a licensed facility legitimizes the pimp or trafficker as part of a business. Individuals who use these places to exploit do so with intention, forethought and planning.
The exploitation that occurs in these facilities is rampant. We need access points to these places, and we need to be careful that we don't limit or restrict the ability of law enforcement to monitor, to search and to prosecute where needed.
Rather than repealing this section, as some have called for, or hybridizing it, as this bill does, we suggest the committee consider clarifying the definition of “bawdy house” in the Criminal Code. The current definition is imprecise, and that imprecision actually cloaks the exploitation that concerns us. We would support a definition which makes it clear that the offence targets situations of sexual exploitation where individuals are held, kept or exploited in a place where someone else is in control of their movement, their activity and quite often their finances.
Next are subsection 279.02(1), on material benefit with trafficking, and subsection 279.03(1), on withholding or destroying documents. These offences as they relate to the trafficking of a person under the age of 18 remain indictable. Our laws rightfully extend particular protections to children who are uniquely vulnerable in a number of ways.
However, this bill would hybridize these same offences as they relate to adult victims. This is problematic because exploited adults are quite often just exploited children who happen to turn 18. In fact, often the only thing about their circumstances that has changed is that they are now 18 and the severity of the abuse they have suffered or continue to suffer does not lessen when they turn 18.
Victims who become adults in the eyes of the law may already feel a bit left behind, because the system offers them fewer supports and services and treats the crimes committed against them as less serious. I would argue that even in cases where the exploitation begins or occurs when the victim is an adult, we do not want to send the message that this conduct is less serious. Human trafficking and the criminal offences associated with it must be considered very serious and be dealt with accordingly. As such, we recommend that these offences not be hybridized.
Finally, we have subsection 286.2(1), on material benefit from sexual services. This provision is clearly aimed at and I suspect applied almost exclusively to individuals who are benefiting, as the law says, from the sale of someone else's sexual services. It is clear that what the current laws aim to do is prevent the exploitation of one individual by another.
This offence and others covered by the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act should not be hybridized. This act established an incredibly important shift in how our country addresses prostitution. It refocused our laws on the buyers and those who profit from exploitation while decriminalizing those who are selling or being sold. We believe these laws are a critical tool in the fight against trafficking and sexual exploitation because they seek to curb the demand for paid sexual services, which is what fuels sex trafficking and funnels women into prostitution.
The act has a mandatory five-year review built in. We strongly recommend that the government keep the current prostitution laws in place as they are, and that when that five-year mark is reached it conduct a thorough review of the laws and their effectiveness in order to determine how they may be strengthened or improved, with the clear objective of eliminating sexual exploitation.