Evidence of meeting #54 for Status of Women in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was assault.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

Good morning, everyone. We'll call the meeting to order.

I understand that a number of people have girls from Carleton University here in the House today, so I think we would want to introduce them and welcome them here.

We'll start with Ms. Damoff. Would you introduce your girl.

8:50 a.m.

Liberal

Pam Damoff Liberal Oakville North—Burlington, ON

I'm very fortunate today to have a young lady from Carleton with me, Caitlin, who's part of the Women in House program.

Welcome, and we look forward to spending the day with you. I hope this gives you a great impression of what Parliament is like, and hopefully you'll consider it as a career going forward.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

Ms. Vecchio.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

Karen Vecchio Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

My ghost person today, Delany Leitch, is a university student at Carleton as well. She is awesome because she was here as part of the Daughters of the Vote. It's great to have her back with us. She is on her way and will be here soon.

I wish them all the best.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

And Ms. Malcolmson.

8:50 a.m.

NDP

Sheila Malcolmson NDP Nanaimo—Ladysmith, BC

I'm honoured to be shadowed today by Olivia Botelho. She she said she's especially excited to be here for the discussion of this bill, which is so high profile. She's very much looking forward to this. It's a great opportunity for future women leaders.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

Excellent.

I'm fortunate to have with me Bonnie Guthrie, also from Daughter of the Vote. I'm pleased to have her here for these proceedings.

I'm extremely delighted to be able to have with us Rona Ambrose, Her Majesty's leader of the official opposition. Rona, we're pleased that you're here. We're looking forward to hearing more about your bill, and you'll have 10 minutes for your comments, and then we'll go into our rounds of questions.

You may begin.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

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.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

Excellent. We'll begin our round of questioning with Mr. Fraser, for seven minutes.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

Sean Fraser Liberal Central Nova, NS

Thank you very much, Ms. Ambrose, for being with us today, and thank you for choosing this topic for your private member's bill. As you referenced, it's something that's important to all members of this committee. We did make recommendations in our recent report, as you highlighted, to the effect that further training of judges was needed.

When we went through that study, we heard from, I believe, 99 witnesses, and one of the themes that leapt out of the testimony for me was the explicit need to consider the intersectional nature of gender-based violence.

One of the things we heard repeatedly was that from the time victims or survivors are assaulted until they reach the end of a trial process, there is a lack of understanding of how gender-based violence can impact women from different backgrounds differently. Certainly, the focus of the bill on judicial training is laudable. I for one think it could be further enhanced if we required that the training consider the intersectional nature of violence.

Would you support any kind of amendment to the bill that required judges to understand how trans women experience sexual assault, how indigenous women experience sexual assault, and how other marginalized groups experience sexual assault differently?

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

I'm open to anything that will provide judges with better training about gender-based violence. At the end of the day—and I'm sure all of you know this—judges are just lawyers who are appointed to the bench; they don't come with all the training.

Someone said to me the other day that it's the government's fault, that they should only appoint criminal lawyers. That's not necessarily what always happens. It's not always criminal layers who apply for the bench. We have people who have backgrounds in corporate law, and oil and gas law who are overseeing some of these trials. That's not good enough. They need to have the training in criminal law and particularly in these kinds of cases, I believe. We know from research that's conclusive now that these kinds of crimes and this kind of trauma, especially at a young age, have a massive impact on girls and women. We know that women who experience violence are at least twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues, and they deal with these issues for the rest of their lives.

Yes, there is a way that we can make this system much more responsive and effective for women. All you have to do is to look at the numbers of women who report, and talk to them. Everyone knows someone who has gone through this, but rarely do we know someone who took it to trial. Women don't even want to go to the police. Why? Because they feel humiliated and ashamed. It should be the perpetrator who feels ashamed and humiliated. Yet, we have a system in which, right from the get-go, women feel that their character is under assault.

There are a lot of ways. To your point about an amendment, I'm obviously open to looking at it anyway. Right now we need to get the Canadian Judicial Council and the judiciary to admit that they need more comprehensive training in this area, and it should be mandated.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Sean Fraser Liberal Central Nova, NS

I would suggest that one of the differences you might see is that women from different marginalized backgrounds may not report at the same rate that other women do.

9 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

Of course. I'm sure.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Sean Fraser Liberal Central Nova, NS

You mentioned that judges are just lawyers who are appointed. The focus of the bill seems to be in part on providing training for potential judges, but not for sitting judges. Do you think there should be a component of this bill that would also provide training for judges who are sitting today and have issued bad decisions in the past?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

We were very careful working with the drafters to not infringe on judicial independence. Unfortunately, Parliament can't tell sitting judges what to do. We tried to get around that by first of all making sure that those who are lawyers and who want to be appointed to the bench receive that training. We can do that. We have a mandate to amend the Judges Act so that lawyers who want to be appointed to the bench do have to undergo the training. That is within our scope.

Also, the reporting items that we've put in this bill are another way to impose a level of transparency and accountability on the current sitting judges for the kind of training that's available and how many people have taken it, without directly mandating sitting judges to do this.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Sean Fraser Liberal Central Nova, NS

I'm quite pleased that, fortunately, we can't tell judges what to do. I think we also have a responsibility, as we saw in the last budget, to fund training for judges, which I think is a very positive thing that would work complementarily toward some of the measures you've proposed.

The short title of the bill suggests—I forget the precise wording—that it's about judicial accountability. To me, the object of judicial training is about justice for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

Would you agree as a general theme the main purpose is not necessarily to hold judges accountable, but to provide justice for those people who are going through the system?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

I think we want to focus on making the system more transparent and fairer. We're not looking to tip the balance in any way. Right now, we have a system whereby judges are presiding over cases, and they're not trained. That's not appropriate. It makes no sense.

If you go through something as horrific as a sexual assault and you take it as far as to go to trial, I would hope you would at least have someone presiding over the trial who understands the law.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Sean Fraser Liberal Central Nova, NS

Thank you.

You mentioned that mandatory training for judges was on your radar as an issue for years, from your time at UBC. You also mentioned that some judges, like Robin Camp, come in with oil and gas backgrounds. That decision was heard in 2014. He wasn't appointed to the Federal Court until 2015. If this were on the radar for such a long time, why wasn't it dealt with in the last government, when you had a seat at the cabinet table?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

I've been asked that question a few times, and the truth is that it never occurred to me that they weren't taking training.

When I started looking at my private members' bill, I was actually looking at ways to amend the Criminal Code, potentially to find ways to make the current criminal law more effective for victims of sexual assault. The more work I did with advocates, the more I realized that our laws on sexual assault are robust and good in Canada, so I started to look at the training. I actually started at the bottom, looking at police training, and it didn't occur to me that this actually....

I remember asking Moira to get a list of all the provinces that have mandatory training for judges. There aren't any. I didn't know—

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

All right, very good.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Sean Fraser Liberal Central Nova, NS

Thank you.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

—so I was happy to move forward with this.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Marilyn Gladu

We're going to Ms. Harder now, for seven minutes.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Rachael Harder Conservative Lethbridge, AB

Thank you very much, Ms. Ambrose, for being with us today and for bringing forward this important piece of legislation.

My first question here concerns the judiciary. It would appear to some that it's already self-regulated and that perhaps a bill like this isn't needed. Could you comment on that?

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Rona Ambrose Conservative Sturgeon River—Parkland, AB

After the bill was introduced—I think it was the next day or the day after that—the Judicial Council responsible for some of this pointed out that they do have some training and that they might look to make it mandatory.

That was a positive response, but I think that Canadians, who need to have more confidence in our judicial system, want to hear is, in fact, “We have very good comprehensive training and here's what it looks like. We've worked with experts to make sure it is the best possible training, and were offering it. We're not just offering it; we're mandating it, and we will make sure that before the Chief Justice assigns a case, the judge who oversees that case has taken that training.” I think that's what people want to hear. They expect that. I think people are shocked to find out that, in fact, this happens. Robin Camp is just one example, but to find out that there are judges who oversee these trials and don't actually have the training in sexual assault is shocking.

The law is one thing; the other is the rape mythology, the stereotypes. When you hear these kinds of commentaries, it's just a lack of understanding about the issues, and training goes a long way in explaining these kinds of issues. I think it's the least we can expect, and this is one area in which Parliament does have an opportunity to make a difference.

Right now, the only criterion to become a judge is that you've sat for 10 years or have been a lawyer for 10 years. That's in the Judges Act, but the whole point of the Judges Act was to create the criteria. There's no reason we can't add an amendment to the Judges Act to ask lawyers who want to become judges that they meet this kind of criterion. I think it's expected.