Evidence of meeting #43 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was violence.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Joanne Klineberg  Senior Counsel, Criminal Law Policy Section, Department of Justice
Gillian Blackell  Senior Counsel, Family, Children and Youth Sector, Department of Justice
Lisa Hitch  Senior Counsel, Family, Children and Youth Sector, Department of Justice
Maureen Tsai  Director, Admissibility Branch, Department of Citizenship and Immigration

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

I'll call the meeting to order.

This is the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, meeting 43, Tuesday, March 31.

We are about to study Bill S-7, which is to amend a number of acts. This is the start of our hearings on this bill.

We have with us this morning the Honourable Chris Alexander, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and his colleagues. The minister will appear for the first hour, and then the colleagues will remain. This meeting is televised.

Minister, I'd like to welcome you to the immigration committee. You may begin.

8:45 a.m.

Ajax—Pickering Ontario

Conservative

Chris Alexander ConservativeMinister of Citizenship and Immigration

Thank you, Chair. Thank you, colleagues.

I'm delighted to appear here today with my colleagues before this committee about Bill S-7, zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act, which has as its principal aim to ensure that no girl or woman in Canada becomes a victim of early or forced marriage, polygamy, so-called honour-based violence, or any other form of barbaric cultural practice. Obviously, we aim to extend those protections to all Canadians.

As you know, the measures contained in Bill S-7 would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code to provide more protection and support for vulnerable individuals, primarily women and girls, but also boys and men.

Our government is taking a strong stance against these practices because they are wrong, but we are also leading international efforts to address them as violations of basic human rights.

According to the NGO Girls Not Brides, every year approximately 15 million girls are married before they turn 18 across dozens of countries, cultures, and religions. In fact, there are hundreds of millions of men and women around the world who are living today with the consequences of forced marriage, who faced those circumstances and were denied protection. Robbed of their childhoods and denied their rights to health, education, and security, they are often victims of sustained violence, including sexual assault. In the most recent Speech from the Throne we recognized that millions of women and girls worldwide continue to be brutalized in these ways by violent practices, including through the inhumane practice of early and forced marriage. Our government committed to help ensure that barbaric cultural practices do not occur on Canadian soil.

Bill S-7 follows up on the commitment the government made in its throne speech. lt sends a clear message to anyone coming to Canada, and to those who are already part of Canadian society, that such practices are incompatible with Canadian values and will not be tolerated here.

The amendments in this bill would strengthen provisions in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act, and the Criminal Code to add further protections. These amendments would improve protection and support for vulnerable individuals, especially women and girls, in a number of specific ways.

First, they would render permanent and temporary residence inadmissible if they practise polygamy in Canada.

Second, they would strengthen Canadian marriage laws by establishing a new national minimum age for marriage of 16 years, by codifying existing legal requirements for free and enlightened consent for marriage, and for ending an existing marriage prior to entering another. They would criminalize certain conduct related to underage and forced marriage ceremonies, including the act of removing a child from Canada for the purpose of such marriage ceremonies. They would help protect potential victims of underage or forced marriages by creating a new and specific preventative court-ordered peace bond where there are grounds to fear someone would commit an offence in this area, and they would ensure that the defence of provocation wouldn't apply in so-called honour killings and many spousal homicides.

Allow me to elaborate.

Mr. Chair, polygamy is an affront to Canadian values, a contradiction of our understanding of marriage, and as such it has been illegal in this country since 1890. While it's against the law in Canada to practise polygamy or to enter into a polygamous union, that's not the case in every country in the world. To increase our ability to prevent polygamy from occurring on Canadian soil and to make sure the immigration system is not facilitating this practice in any way, Bill S-7 would create a new ground of inadmissibility in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act for practising polygamy. Keep in mind that these grounds of inadmissibility as codified in the act are few. They are limited. They are important to our immigration system. They have, to date, related to national security concerns, threats to national security; criminality, those convicted of crimes abroad; and extreme cases of ill health, where the medical conditions of those coming to Canada are such that we simply wouldn't be able to cope in this country.

Polygamy would be added to that very limited set of inadmissibilities. It would provide immigration officers with the tools they need to render both temporary and permanent residents inadmissible for practising polygamy. The new inadmissibility would mean that those entering on a temporary basis who are in polygamous marriages abroad would be able to enter only on their own.

It also means that permanent residents found to be in a polygamous marriage will be removed on that basis alone. In other words, if someone applied for immigration and received permanent residence without informing authorities of the reality of their situation, and were found to be in a polygamous union, they would be removed. We would no longer need a criminal conviction or a finding of misrepresentation in order to begin deportation proceedings.

Mr. Chair, measures in Bill S-7 would also amend the Civil Marriage Act in order to address the problem of early and forced marriage. This is almost certainly the part of the bill with the widest potential application, certainly from my understanding of the scale of the phenomenon we're dealing with.

In Canada today there is no national minimum age for marriage. Specific federal laws, which apply only in Quebec, set the minimum age at 16 years old. In other parts of Canada, the common law applies. There is some uncertainty and debate about the common-law minimum age, which is sometimes interpreted as setting a minimum of 12 for girls and 14 for boys, although in some instances, and historically, it can be as low as seven years old. Setting a national minimum age of 16 years old for marriage would make it clear that underage marriage is unacceptable in Canada and won't be tolerated.

Other amendments proposed in Bill S-7 would codify the requirement that those getting married must give their free and enlightened consent to marry each other, and would codify the requirement for the dissolution of any previous marriage. In other words, it has not been unambiguously clear in our law today that you cannot enter another union without dissolving the previous one.

Building on the proposed amendments to the Civil Marriage Act, Bill S-7 also contains measures that would amend the Criminal Code to help prevent forced or underage marriage.

Building on the proposed amendments to the Civil Marriage Act, Bill S-7 also contains measures that would amend the Criminal Code to help prevent forced or underage marriage.

These measures would criminalize essentially celebrating, aiding, or participating in a forced marriage ceremony: anyone knowingly officiating at an underage or forced marriage; anyone knowingly and actively participating in a wedding ceremony in which one party is marrying another against his or her will or is under 16 years old; and removing a minor from Canada for a forced or underage marriage.

Other proposed amendments would create a new peace bond that would give courts the power to impose conditions on an individual when there are reasonable grounds to fear that a forced marriage or a marriage under the age of 16 will otherwise occur.

Why is this important, Mr. Chair? Because in cases where family members are affected by forced or underage marriage, as we know from experience, there isn't always a willingness to bring criminal charges. A peace bond allows individuals to place restrictions on their family members by court order without having to go through the additional trying experience of pressing charges against an immediate family member. Such a peace bond could be used to prevent an underage or forced marriage, for example, by requiring the surrender of a passport, as well as preventing a child from being taken out of Canada. This is an important option for a young girl, for example, who wants to stop her family from taking her out of the country for a forced marriage but does not want to press charges.

Mr. Chair, measures in the bill would also address so-called honour killings. So-called honour-based violence is usually perpetrated against family members, usually women and girls, who are perceived to have brought shame or dishonour to the family. Honour killings are usually premeditated and committed with some degree of approval and sometimes participation of family or community members. However, in some cases they may also be alleged to be spontaneous killings in response to behaviour by the victim that is perceived to be disrespectful, insulting, or harmful to a family's reputation.

Under the Criminal Code, anyone charged with and found to have actually committed murder can raise the defence of provocation in seeking a reduction to the lesser charge of manslaughter. In other words, the accused can argue that the victim's conduct in some way provoked them into the heat of passion that brought them to kill the other person in that state. Yes, disrespect and defiance could lead to a defence of provocation in a murder case, which could potentially lead to a lesser conviction.

A conviction for manslaughter instead of murder carries greatly reduced stigmatization, and more importantly, wide latitude for judicial discretion in sentencing. Manslaughter carries a maximum of life imprisonment with no minimum sentence unless a firearm is used, whereas murder carries a mandatory life sentence with ineligibility to apply for parole for at least 10 years. Of course, we would be tightening the penalties in some of these cases under the “life means life” legislation now before Parliament.

This defence has been raised in several so-called honour killing cases across Canada. Accused murderers have claimed that real or perceived marital infidelity, disrespect, defiance, or insulting behaviour on the part of the victims towards their spouse, sibling, or parent provoked the killing. As a society, we need to send a clear signal that this kind of reasoning and these kinds of acts are unacceptable and will result in a severe penalty.

Passage of Bill S-7 into law would send a strong message to those in Canada, and those that wish to come to this country, that we won't tolerate cultural practices in Canada that deprive individuals of their human rights or that lead to violence.

If the committee wishes to go into further detail about any aspect of this legislation, I am happy to address it across the board and to answer your questions.

Thank you very much.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Thank you for your presentation, Mr. Minister.

We will have some questions from members of the committee.

Mr. Eglinski.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Eglinski Conservative Yellowhead, AB

I want to thank all the witnesses who came out, especially Mr. Alexander.

I believe this bill is sending a clear message to individuals coming into this country that violent cultural practices are unacceptable in Canada. There are critics on the opposition side, especially from southern B.C., that say this isn't necessary; it's just a waste of time.

Mr. Alexander, have you or members of your department held consultations on this bill and can you tell us what you heard in relation to that aspect?

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

Many of us around the table were involved in consultations in the preparation of this bill in all major urban areas of Canada and beyond. I'm particularly grateful for the work that my parliamentary secretary, Costas Menegakis, did in this respect.

The view across the country was uniform. This is happening in Canada, not on an enormous scale but on a significant scale, and one that hasn't been fully documented. The few studies that we have from settlement organizations, from university researchers, give us grounds to believe that there are hundreds, even thousands, of these cases occurring even over limited numbers of years. One case is frankly too many.

We found that women and girls, especially, but all advocates on behalf of the protection of Canadians from all forms of violence, were very interested in moving forward with measures of this sort. They identified very clear gaps in the criminal justice system that prevented law enforcement, that prevented prosecutors, from taking action to date in the ways that we all would have liked to have seen.

On the question of cultural practices, these are practices that have been defended in families, in homes, in communities, on the basis of tradition, on the basis of the sanctity of family, on the basis of culture, and those defences will not work.

Any culture of violence, any culture that justifies violence in Canada won't be acceptable to Canadians. That's what we're trying to attack in this bill.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Eglinski Conservative Yellowhead, AB

I noticed that at the end of your speech you talked about provocation. I know some of the opposition say that we should leave it in there. As a former police officer, I've always looked at it where we've had premeditated murder where the person plans that murder versus a murder that takes place just because it happened in a set of circumstances.

I've always looked at the provocation side as premeditated. This is a planned outright act that a lot of strategy went into.

Can you give us some details of some cases that you may know of or your department knows of?

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

You as an experienced police officer have, of course, the kind of experience that is vital to getting this right. You are absolutely right that the idea that defence with reference to provocation in a case where a spouse has murdered his wife is absurd in many of the cases we've seen. I think it's repugnant to most Canadians.

This bill essentially says that in a case where the perpetrator is being charged with murder, there will be no defence that has any reference to what the victim said. That will not constitute a defence ever. There will still be a defence by provocation, but the provocation will have to involve an indictable offence punishable by up to a minimum of five years. It has to be a violent act in and of itself.

Of course, where there are no witnesses, it will be hard to prove these things, and we leave that to the justice system. The idea that someone could defend the act of murder by saying someone said this, that, or the other thing is absolutely absurd and will end with this bill.

The Shafia case, which ended in Kingston, Ontario, but took place in many communities, is the most famous recent example. It involves polygamy, forced marriage, and murder. There were convictions in this case. Did the accused, the murderer, feel that family honour was at stake? Yes. Was the defence of provocation used or successful? No, but it's important for all of us to ensure that it never will be used in a case such as this.

Of course, closer to home for me there is the murder case of Ms. Fazli in Ajax, which is still under way. This is a case where a sponsored spouse, a husband in this case, who had come very recently from Afghanistan, is accused of having murdered the sponsor and is the only suspect in the case.

These are the kinds of cases that show us how one case of violence, especially on the ultimate scale of murder, is too many and how we need to protect women and girls in our immigration system and in our justice system generally, even more than they are already protected under the relatively strong system we have in Canada.

9 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Eglinski Conservative Yellowhead, AB

Thank you very much for that.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Okay.

Madam Blanchette-Lamothe.

9 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Let me also thank the witnesses for joining us today.

I would like to quickly go back to the comments made by my colleague, Mr. Eglinski. He said that the opposition found that it was a waste of time and it was useless. The NDP is convinced that violence against women and children exists in Canada. One instance of violence is one too many. There is a lot of work to do on that.

However, we definitely have a difference of opinion on Bill S-7 itself. I am not sure that Bill S-7 is really the most appropriate solution to the problem. That is what I would like to ask the minister about.

How many sections of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act does Bill S-7 amend exactly?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

Bill S-7 amends the sections of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that have to do with eligibility. It adds the principle of ineligibility for those practising polygamy.

The amendments also relate to the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code.

9 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Thank you.

More specifically, Bill S-7 adds two subsections to one section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Most of the amendments proposed in Bill S-7 are actually amendments to the Criminal Code. If I'm not mistaken, the bill proposes to amend seven or eight sections of the Criminal Code. However, you rose first in the House to talk about Bill S-7, and the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration is studying Bill S-7.

Why is it being studied in relation to immigration rather than in relation to the Criminal Code? Why is the bill not being studied by the Minister of Justice or the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security and the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights? The vast majority of the bill deals with the Criminal Code.

9 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

That is an excellent question.

It is truly a team effort. Here around the table, we have representatives from a number of departments. The bill is the fruit of the joint efforts of four ministers, if not five: the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Status of Women, the Minister of Foreign Affairs—because of the international dimension dealing with forced and underage marriage in particular—and myself as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

We had to choose from all the committees we work with. I think the provisions on forced and underage marriage are likely to have the strongest impact in Canada.

How does that affect immigration when the changes are being made to the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code? Because forced and underage marriage is common practice in a lot of countries.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

That includes Canada.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

Yes, but the forced marriage rate in other countries is much higher than Canada's. Canada's population is 35 million people and there are 7 billion people in other parts of the world. We need to keep an eye on this issue in our immigration programs to ensure that people who come to Canada don't think those practices are permitted. We also need to make sure that people, especially girls, are not expatriated to be forced into a marriage in another country.

March 31st, 2015 / 9:05 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Thank you. I understand what you are saying.

You have actually repeated that the most important issues in this bill have to do with forced and underage marriage. However, several people who testified before the Senate committee complained that this bill—or even the bill's overall approach—had overtly racist and discriminatory connotations. We can see it in the title, but I think we also see it in the fact that you, not the Minister of Justice, are the champion of the bill.

Of course, there are significantly more forced marriages in other countries than in Canada, but we don't want to solve the problem of forced marriages in other countries. We are interested in the situations in Canada. Regardless of people's countries of origin and cultural background, if they use violence against women, especially through forced marriage, what matters is the crime they are committing as well as the response triggered by their crime.

In that light, Ms. Yao-Yao Go, who is the clinic director of Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said the following when she appeared before the Senate committee:

From the very naming of this bill to the various legislative amendments it seeks to amend, Bill S-7 invokes racist stereotypes and fuels xenophobia towards certain racialized communities.

Furthermore, in the House of Commons, you quoted Ms. Miville-Deschênes by saying that she supported some aspects of your bill. However, if you really attach importance and credibility to her testimony, you will agree that she criticized the title of the bill as well. She said the following:

The title should essentially be changed because we think it might encourage xenophobia.

Further on, she said:

...for prevention purposes, we need communities to be with us and not against us. That is why the title of this legislation must absolutely be changed.

We are talking about the overall approach of the bill, which includes the title. I don't want you to stop talking about Bill S-7. It is being studied right now at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. However, we need to make sure that forced marriage does not become a “racialized” issue and that it is handled as a crime, an act of violence against women, period.

Given that all those witnesses have criticized the title of the bill, do you think it would be appropriate to change it?

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

No, because addressing violence is in no way “racialization”. We are not promoting violence or crime. We are dealing with it. Those crimes are not concentrated in one culture or one part of the world.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

But why not change the title?

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

Because we think violence is barbaric. We find that people from all kinds of backgrounds and religions sometimes justify it in the name of culture, tradition or the family. Studies done to date show this. We want to say that defending violence on behalf of culture is unacceptable. That culture of violence is unacceptable.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

So, in other words, you aren't listening to the witnesses.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

We're finished. I'm sorry, we're well over.

Mr. McCallum.

9:10 a.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you to the minister and officials for being here.

We support the content of the bill, but as we have discussed, we would propose the removal of the word “cultural” in the short form. In our view, cultures don't have anything to do with this because such acts go across cultures. You have a different definition of the word.

I guess my main point is that whatever our semantic debate might be, the reality out there is that the perception in a number of communities, particularly in the Muslim community, is that the use of the term “cultural” is an attack on their community. Whatever the merits of our debate on semantics, I would ask that you might reconsider this and consider removing the word “cultural” because it would not do anything to change the content of the bill but it would send a small signal to the Muslim community, or perhaps other communities, that their government is not out to get them. It seems to me you would be sacrificing nothing in terms of content, and sending a positive message.

I do have a second question, which I'd like to put now so I don't run out of time. This is with regard to provocation.

I think if we accept the government's argument that the availability of the defence in the legislation sends a signal of tolerance for the crime, then we need to examine what signals we are sending with this amendment. The problem with the amendment is that if it were to pass, a number of specific criminal offences would fall under this definition, including theft and mischief, because the criterion is a five-year term. I wonder if the government might consider other options that would include only violent acts in the definition of the crime that is relevant.

My two questions then regard, one, the use of the term, or hopefully the removal of the term “cultural” in the short title; and the possible amendment in the area of provocation.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

Chair, I'm grateful for those questions but confident of the answer. Around the world, according to Girls Not Brides, there are 720 million girls and women alive today who were married or entered into union before their 18th birthday. That is 10% of the world's population.

Why do people want to come to Canada as immigrants? Why do they, as women and girls, see life in Canada as better than in almost every other part of the world? Why do they respect our justice system? That's because they have a reasonable expectation that forced marriage, early marriage, will not happen here. Yet it still happens, as we know from several settlement agencies, as we know from academic studies, so these protections against practices that are defended in the name of culture, not by all Canadians, not by most Canadians, but by small groups of Canadians, need to be dealt with, and this bill does exactly that. There is a culture of support for forced marriage in Canada on a limited scale that needs to be eliminated and that's what we hope to do with this bill.

I'm confident that the Liberal Party will come around to the new name. A couple of years ago their leader objected to the use of the term “barbaric”; now they accept that. Give them a little time and they'll come around to the use of the word “cultural”. It takes a while for the penny to drop on these points for the Liberal Party of Canada, apparently.

On the defence of provocation, we're very confident of the amendment that is proposed here. We're saying that the only provocation that might be acceptable in a court of law is very serious violence by the victim. Indictable offences punishable by up to five years or more are violent offences. Am I right?

9:10 a.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

No, they're not necessarily.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Alexander Conservative Ajax—Pickering, ON

What are the non-violent ones?