Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this debate on Bill C-22, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (age of protection) and to make consequential amendments to the Criminal Records Act.
The purpose of this bill is to better protect older youths from becoming victims of sexual exploitation. Bill C-22 will also show sexual predators that Canada does not tolerate abuse of adolescents. This bill makes it clear, on an international level, that Canada is not a sex tourism destination.
The Bloc Québécois agrees with the principle underlying this bill, but has some concerns about the negative effects that the legislative provisions arising from it might have.
The Criminal Code already includes a number of provisions to protect young people from sexual abuse and exploitation. It might seem that raising the age of consent from 14 to 16 would do a better job of protecting adolescent boys and girls from these dangers; nevertheless, this measure, though not of minor importance, does not meet all of the needs in this respect. We will try to improve on that in committee. We must ensure that Bill C-22 includes provisions concerning prevention and sexual education for young people as well as provisions for schools and social services.
As I said, the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-22 in principle because it is an additional tool in the fight against the sexual exploitation of some of the most vulnerable members of society.
The Bloc Québécois has always recognized the need to increase the protection of young adolescents. In the past, we have actively worked to achieve those objectives. However, as I have stated, before adopting the bill under review, we must ensure that increasing the age of consent does not have harmful effects on the very young people that we are trying to protect. That will be the duty of the committee following second reading of Bill C-22.
The Bloc Québécois is concerned about the possibility of criminalizing relationships between young people that would be perfectly healthy and legitimate. We also fear that the bill could have unexpected perverse effects on the physical and mental health of the young people we are seeking to protect. I will come back to that point a little later. Let us consider a relationship in which a young person with psychological problems or health problems did not wish to call on the services of a doctor or a psychologist for fear of exposing a relationship with an adult that does not meet the objectives of Bill C-22.
The committee, therefore, will have to very seriously consider all these issues. I am sure that my colleague from Hochelaga who, as you know, is our justice critic, will propose amendments, if necessary, to truly achieve the objectives of Bill C-22— objectives that we all share—the protection of young people from sexual assault and exploitation. Bill C-22 must not penalize young people who have consensual sexual relations that are completely healthy and legitimate. In that respect, the exceptions set out in the bill appear to be an interesting alternative. I will come back to that point. The committee must examine them very closely to ensure that this protection does not have harmful effects.
The Bloc Québécois is particularly concerned about the effect that raising the age of consent could have on young people, especially in regard to receiving psychological and physical health care. For example, would a young person who thought he or she might have been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases or who was psychologically fragile be reluctant to consult a doctor or psychologist if he or she knew that their partner could face criminal prosecution if their relationship was disclosed?
It is important to make it clear that the Bloc Québécois supports the principle of this bill with the sole objective of better protecting children against sexual predators and not with the goal of stigmatizing young people who have consensual sexual relations.
We have to resist the temptation to think that this one amendment to the Criminal Code will be enough to protect our children. If this House thinks that, then I think it is seriously mistaken.
The Bloc Québécois has often said, and will continue to say, that the real solution lies in prevention and in educating young people to recognize exploitative relationships and distance themselves from such relationships.
Nevertheless, this issue concerns me. I myself have adolescent children, and we know how complex relationships between young people can be, especially during adolescence. We must not think that by criminalizing such relationships, we will rectify terrible situations. The Criminal Code already includes a number of offences of this nature. For example, it prohibits a whole series of behaviours that violate individuals' sexual integrity, in some cases taking into account not only the victim's age, but the perpetrator's as well.
I would like to quote a definition of sexual assault, taken from a document published by the Government of Quebec in 2001, entitled “Orientations gouvernementales en matière d'agression sexuelle”. In this document, sexual assault is defined as follows:
Sexual assault is an act that is sexual in nature, with or without physical contact, committed by an individual without the consent of the victim or in some cases through emotional manipulation or blackmail, especially when children are involved. It is an act that subjects another person to the perpetrator’s desires through an abuse of power and/or the use of force or coercion, accompanied by implicit or explicit threats. Sexual assault violates the victim's basic rights, including the right to physical and psychological integrity and security of the person.
I am sure we all agree that this sort of attitude or behaviour is totally unacceptable in a civilized society.
The Criminal Code contains other provisions that address specific needs for protection of children, adolescents and persons with disabilities. These provisions are designed to prevent sexual exploitation and prohibit sexual interference with children under 14 and sexual exploitation of children between 14 and 18 by persons in a position of authority or trust towards them, as well as sexual exploitation of persons with a mental or physical disability.
This provision, which is already included in the Criminal Code, seems to me to be an extremely important one. For example, I taught at a college for a number of years, myself. We know that at that age, students are very much in need of role models. What our society must do is categorically say no to behaviour on the part of people in positions of authority that results in their using that authority to obtain unwanted sexual favours. Our society must reject this. This is extremely important, since we know that young people and children are sometimes psychologically vulnerable or subject to emotional manipulation.
Provision has also recently been made in the Criminal Code for a court to declare a sexual offender, after a special hearing in accordance with the procedure set out in the Criminal Code, to be a long-term offender. After serving the sentence imposed, the offender is subject to an order for supervision in the community for a period not exceeding 10 years.
Thus there is already a set of measures in the Criminal Code that must be used judiciously. Since July 2005, the Criminal Code has prohibited an individual of any age from exploiting his or her control or influence, and the age difference between them, to persuade a person under the age of 18 years to engage in sexual contact with him or her.
So in 2005 we plugged a loophole that could have been used by sexual predators. A provision was even added that such an individual is committing the offence of sexual exploitation defined in section 153 and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years.
The individual may even be guilty of a second crime, luring a child, if he or she uses a computer to contact adolescents for the purpose of engaging in prohibited sexual contact with them.
Obviously, Canada is not an exception; these are matters of great concern in the international community as a whole.
The United Nations General Assembly has adopted two conventions that assist in the struggle to eliminate violence against women and to protect the rights of children, and that provide guidance in terms of international standards. They are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which goes back to 1979, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which dates from 1989. Canada has of course acceded to those conventions.
Bill C-22, in itself, is consistent both with recent developments in the law and the values adhered to in advanced democratic societies and with the conventions that have been entered into at the United Nations.
Getting back to Bill C-22 specifically, as I mentioned, the bill involves amendments to the Criminal Code and, by extension, the Criminal Records Act. It raises the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 and changes the wording to age of protection. First of all, I must mention that raising the age of consent does not change the “enticement of a minor” provisions, which prohibit all adults in a position of authority from having sexual relations with a minor under 18. I would point out that the Criminal Code already included many elements, as I mentioned earlier, and that Bill C-22 brings an additional aspect that represents another building block in a structure that is already quite advanced.
The bill raises the age of consent from 14 to 16, while allowing for some exceptions. This is extremely important. When the government announced its intention to table a bill to raise the age of consent, I must confess that I was worried about the issue of sexual relations between young people becoming a matter for the courts and the potential for family members to use it to put personality conflicts on trial, for example, or to interfere in the lives of young people.
I was pleased to see that provisions were made for certain exceptions, which I will now discuss. For example, exceptions apply to adolescents aged 14 and 15 who engage in non-exploitative sexual activity—I will come back to this definition—with a partner who is less than five years older. A 15-year-old youth can therefore have entirely healthy and normal relations with someone who is 18, 19 or 20. As I said, such relations can be completely legitimate.
Under the proposed reforms, an additional time-limited exception would be available for a 14 or 15 year old youth whose sexual partner is more than five years older but with whom, when the new age of protection comes into effect, the youth is already legally married or living in a common-law relationship. Thus, existing and legal relationships under the current age of consent, which is 14, are being protected.
In addition, the bill maintains a close in age exception for 12 and 13 year old youths who engage in sexual activities with an adolescent who is less than two years older, on condition that these activities are not exploitative in nature. Here too, a 12 year old youth involved in sexual activities with a 14 year old would be covered in Bill C-22. These kinds of things happen in our society. Sometimes youths become sexually active quite early.
I would like to summarize these exceptions. First, there is a close in age exception of five years for 14 and 15 year old youths. Second, there is a close in age exception of two years for 12 and 13 year old youths. Third, there is a transitional exception which provides that, at the time when the act comes into force, 14 or 15 year old youths and their partners who are more than five years older may legally continue their sexual contact if, and only if, they are married, are common-law partners, or have a child as a result of their relationship.
These protections help to ensure that the fears which may have arisen when the bill was announced are not so great as they might have been. The exceptions ensure that youths in late adolescence or early adulthood are not stigmatized for feeling sexually attracted and having healthy, legitimate sexual relations.
I wanted to return to the question of exploitative activities. When it comes to these activities, for example when youths are asked to participate in pornographic films or are placed in situations that involve their sexuality and for which they are paid, the age of consent is 18. The legislation should not change in this regard. When there is a position of trust, authority or dependence involved, the age of consent should remain at 18.
We already have clear, major guidelines in this regard, and Bill C-22 will add a few more. It is simply an extension of the legislation that has been passed over the last few years or decades.
As I mentioned earlier, these exceptions make it clear that the purpose of the bill is to prevent assault and sexual exploitation of youth by sexual predators or deviants. However, we should also realize—the government included—that deplorable situations cannot be addressed by the Criminal Code alone. The Criminal Code comes into play once the assault has taken place. Some may believe that without a deterrent, it is still true.
Most sexual deviants are mentally ill. Thus, youths must be equipped to recognize situations where they may be at risk and situations where they may be manipulated emotionally or blackmailed by any number of means.
It is important for us as a society to realize that sex education is absolutely necessary to truly protect adolescents and youth in general. It can prevent sexually transmitted diseases and protect youth and adolescents from unwanted sexual relations or exploitative situations. In this regard, all of us—parents, schools, social services, society in general—share the responsibility
In closing, I would like to quickly state that the Bloc Québécois supports the principle of Bill C-22. We recognize the need to increase protection of children and, in the past, have been proactive in attaining these objectives. The Bloc Québécois wishes to ascertain, however, that there will be no adverse effects on the health and freedom of the youth we seek to protect. When the bill is studied in committee, we will have to be very careful to ensure that the intention of protecting children, youth and adolescents—which I believe is shared by all parliamentarians in this House—does not backfire and that they are not stigmatized for sexual activities that are quite normal and healthy.