Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to join in the debate on Bill C-20, an act to amend the Criminal Code, respecting the protection of children and other vulnerable persons, and the Canada Evidence Act.
Although Bill C-20 responds to a number of important issues, its overall objective is to provide increased protection to children against sexual exploitation and abuse in all forms. In particular, it addresses child pornography which, unfortunately, is an issue that is all too familiar to all hon. members.
I have found the second reading debate on Bill C-20 to be very interesting from a number of perspectives.
First, the debate serves to highlight the importance of careful scrutiny of measures that we have taken and propose to take to better protect children against sexual exploitation. The government welcomes this debate for it is through such discussions that we, as parliamentarians, can broaden our knowledge and our understanding of the issue at hand and thereby ensure the right response to what has already been said are very complex issues.
Second, the debate on Bill C-20 demonstrates that we do not all share a common understanding of what our criminal laws currently prohibit, that is vis-à-vis, child pornography or what Bill C-20 proposes by way of amendments. I believe that to fully understand and debate what Bill C-20 proposes, it is essential that we first fully understand our existing child pornography prohibitions.
Third, I note that while it may appear that there is a divergence of opinion among hon. members about what is the best way to protect children against sexual exploitation through child pornography, I believe that we all share a common, overarching concern and objective, namely, to better protect our children against this form of sexual exploitation. Let me reiterate the comments of the Minister of Justice in that regard. This government's commitment to the protection of children is clear and strong and it is reflected in Bill C-20's proposed amendments.
As I have already said, before considering the proposed child pornography amendments in Bill C-20, it is important to fully understand and appreciate what our existing criminal law already prohibits.
Since 1993, the Criminal Code has prohibited, first, making, printing, publishing or possessing for the purpose of publication any child pornography. This carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment on indictment.
Second, it prohibits the importing, distributing, selling or possessing for the purpose of distribution or sale, of any child pornography. This carries a penalty of 10 years imprisonment on indictment.
Third, it prohibits the possession of child pornography. This carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment on indictment. I note that the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the constitutionality of the possession offence with a very narrow exception. It does not apply to self-authored works of the imagination that are made and kept solely for one's personal use. However the child pornography offences do apply to self-authored works of imagination that are shared or otherwise disseminated.
Since July 23, 2002, and as a result of Bill C-15A, the Criminal Code also prohibits the transmitting, making available, exporting or possession for the purpose of transmitting, making available or exporting, any child pornography. This carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment on indictment. It also prohibits accessing child pornography. This new accessing offence carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment on indictment.
Bill C-15A amendments also allow the courts to order the deletion of child pornography posted on Canadian computer systems such as websites. These new measures directly address the misuse of new technologies to commit child pornography offences. On a related note I would add that Bill C-15A also created a new offence of luring. That is using a computer system in such a way, such as through the Internet, to communicate with a child for the purpose of committing a sexual offence against that child.
These are existing child pornography offences and they are very comprehensive. They recognize and address the many different ways that child pornography can be made and disseminated. When we look at them altogether, they show why Canada's child pornography provisions are among the toughest in the world, and they are.
Bill C-20 goes further yet and builds upon this comprehensive set of prohibitions against child pornography in two very key respects.
First, it broadens the definition of written child pornography. Currently the existing definition of written material only applies to material that advocates or counsels sexual activity with a young person under the age of 18 years. That would be an offence under the Criminal Code. Bill C-20 proposes to also include written material that describes prohibited sexual activity with a child where the written description of the activity is the dominant characteristic of the material and the written description is done for a sexual purpose.
This proposed amendment recognizes the risk of harm that such material can pose to society by portraying children as a class of objects for sexual exploitation. It also directly responds to the concerns flowing from the most recent Sharpe decision.
Bill C-20 also proposes to amend the existing defences of child pornography. Currently the Criminal Code provides a defence for material that has artistic merit or an educational, scientific or medical purpose. It also makes the public good defence available for all child pornography offences.
Bill C-20 proposes to merge these two defences into one defence of public good. As a result of the proposed amendment, a court would be required to consider whether the act or material in question serves the public good. If it does serve the public good, then the court must also consider whether the act or material goes beyond what serves the public good. If it exceeds what serves the public good, then there is no defence available. In other words, does the risk of harm posed by an act or material in question outweigh any potential benefit to society? That is the question we have to ask.
The question has been asked, when or how could anything related to child pornography ever serve the public good. I can understand this question, particularly from those who may be less familiar with the intricacies of criminal law, but this is not a new defence or indeed one without any existing legal interpretation or understanding.
In January 2001 the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Sharpe child pornography case, the court considered the meaning of public good. The court noted that the term “public good” had been interpreted as including matters that were necessary or advantageous to the administration of justice, the pursuit of science, literature, art or other objects of general interest.
An example given is that of possession of child pornographic material by police or crown prosecutors for the purposes associated with investigation and prosecution. I hope all hon. members can see the public good to be served by enabling our police and prosecutors to possess child pornography for these investigative and prosecutorial purposes. The law must take these realities into account and Bill C-20 does exactly that.
The proposed amendment to have only one defence of public good should not be misconstrued as saying that child pornography is good. Of course it is not and the government has taken very real and concrete measures that strongly condemn child pornography.
The existence of child pornography defences was a key element in the supreme court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the overall child pornographic scheme. Bill C-20's proposed amendment to allow a very limited defence in limited circumstances that requires the balancing of the risk of harm against the risk of good to be served by that act or material in question draws from the supreme court's wisdom in this regard.
In other words, the government has taken very seriously its responsibility to protect children against sexual exploitation, as well as its responsibility to uphold the charter. It is not a question of doing one or the other. Bill C-20 does both. It protects the right of child victims to equal protection and benefit under the law and the charter rights and freedoms of the accused.
I would also like to acknowledge concerns noted by hon. members regarding the sentencing results in some child pornography cases. In this regard concerns are twofold; namely, that the sentences being handed down are generally too lenient and that they are inappropriate where they consist of a conditional sentence.
To this I would like to draw the attention of hon. members to a part of Bill C-20 that has received little attention and that is clause 24. Clause 24 proposes to make the commission of any offence against a child, and not just against one's own child, an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes. First, I believe that this part of Bill C-20 speaks directly to the concern noted by some members regarding how seriously courts should view child pornography. Second, on the question of the use of conditional sentences in child pornography cases, I would note that the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights is currently in the midst of a review of the use of conditional sentences since their implementation some six years ago. I certainly look forward to seeing the results of that review on this issue.
Bill C-20 proposes significant reforms that will better protect children against sexual exploitation through child pornography. I call on all hon. members to support this important bill.