Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to all the members of the status of women committee for all the great work that you do. As the opposition critic for status of women, I watch closely and I wanted to commend you right off the bat for the great report you just produced. I thank you for all of your great efforts and advocacy inside and outside this House.
I would like to thank the committee for having me today. This is an excellent opportunity to talk about an issue that is extremely important, not just to me, but also to Canadians.
Now, this all started when I was a university student. I volunteered in my spare time at a rape crisis centre, and that obviously had a profound impact on me. But at the same time, I participated in a research project with another advocacy organization called the Status of Women Action Group. It was doing a lot of good work on behalf of women, but one of the projects they were working on was a court watch program. This was many years ago when I was in university in British Columbia. This project basically had student volunteers like me sitting in courtrooms during sexual assault and sexual abuse cases, taking notes about how victims and complainants were treated. It was shocking. The whole point of that program was to amass evidence necessary to convince, at that time, the British Columbia government to mandate training for judges on sexual assault and sexual abuse. Well, here we are many years later, and we still don't have that.
Some things have improved, but I think we have a long way to go. Some of the things that I saw in the courtroom were shocking then, and sadly we still see these kinds of things. I remember sitting in a courtroom taking notes when a prosecutor was questioning a little girl—when I say little girl, I mean under the age of 12—about how she sat on a defendant's lap. The insinuation was that she was flirting with this man who was in his fifties.
These kinds of stereotypes still exist, these kinds of mythologies continue, and we see them in our courtrooms. I don't have to raise some of the high-profile cases that you've seen. The truth is, the reason we know about those cases is that there happened to be a reporter in the room. That's the only reason we know. These kinds of things do go on day in and day out. I think there's an opportunity for us to make a change.
We've seen examples where judges seemingly didn't understand the law or didn't apply the law. It was as upsetting then as it is now. Unfortunately, as I said, it's still happening.
In the past few years, I have noted a disturbing number of sexual assault cases that have shaken the public's confidence in our justice system. These are cases in which those whom the justice system was supposed to serve, especially women who were victims of sexual assault, were harmed by comments, attitudes, or the application of the law.
What Bill C-337 proposes is very simple. First, the bill would require the Canadian judiciary to produce every year a report detailing how many judges have completed training in sexual assault law, how many cases were heard by judges who had not been trained, as well as a description of the courses that were taken. Second, it would require any lawyer applying for a position in the judiciary to have first completed sexual assault case training and education. Third, it would result in a greater number of written decisions from judges presiding over sexual assault trials.
Let me say how pleased I was to see your recent report, “Taking Action To End Violence Against Young Women and Girls in Canada”. I know that this report, in particular, touched on the need to improve training in the field of sexual assault law for the Canadian judiciary, so it seems that we're thinking along the same, parallel lines.
I wanted to point out that we really strived, in crafting this bill, to keep it effective, while keeping our measures within the realm of the possible. We know that the first test it needs to pass is to demonstrate that it does not interfere with a free and independent judiciary, and we believe it passes that test. These are changes that apply to federal law and are within Parliament's right to amend, namely the Judges Act and the Criminal Code. We do expect and welcome debate on this issue, but in my view, it's time this debate is held out in the open and with representation from all sides. Every time another story of a survivor's case being mishandled by our court system hits the news, there are questions whispered and fretted over, but rarely spoken aloud.
Allow me to address a few of them early on and to tell you where my colleagues and I fall on these issues.
There's a question that comes up quite often. Does this bill unfairly tip the balance in favour of the complainant? We would argue that it does not. The training proposed in this bill is intended to level the playing field. An accused does not have a right to use myths and stereotypes about the complainant. Canada's laws against sexual assault are robust, and there is a responsibility upon our judiciary to ensure that there is clear knowledge of the Criminal Code provisions intended to protect complainants from those myths and stereotypes. By increasing our judiciary's knowledge of Canada's sexual assault law, both sides benefit.
Another question I often encounter is why focus on sexual assault trials over other kinds of crime or assault? My answer, simply put, is because these trials are, in fact, different, and our system already acknowledges that.
We have family courts, youth courts, and courts specifically for drug-related offences. I see no reason not to recognize the distinct nature of sexual crimes as well.
In fact, amendments made to the Canadian Criminal Code in the 1980s took the important step of singling out crimes of this nature. I want to point out that in the U.K., our cousins in parliament, the chief justice actually uses a system called a “rape-ticketing” system, which only allows those who have been trained in sexual assault to oversee these trials. So they are a bit ahead of us.
Finally, while there is an assumption among the public that members of our judiciary are already trained in these sensitive areas of the law, the reality is only half true. Yes, there is training available. It's definitely not mandatory, and it is held over just a two-week period, and it covers multiple areas of law, from contract law to criminal law. Given the low rate of trust among Canadians, and specifically among those who have encountered our criminal justice system in connection with an act of sexual violence, it's clear that more must be done.
Ultimately, we want Canadians to have faith in their justice system. The judiciary, I believe, has not stepped up to ensure that all of its judges are trained and do not unintentionally or intentionally re-victimize sexual assault complainants or, frankly, any party involved in these types of proceedings. This bill would take steps to build a more accountable and transparent judiciary.
That's why we're here today, Madam Chair. I look forward to having a discussion and doing my best to answer all of your questions.
Thanks so much.