Mr. Speaker, I prefer throughout my speech to refer to this as Bill S-7, and it will become apparent why that is the case when I speak. It is an act that would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act, the Criminal Code, and a number of other ancillary criminal-related bills.
I would like to make the comment right at the outset that what has coloured this legislation, based on the testimony given in the Senate, is that it is the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration who has chosen to speak to the bill. Normally it would be the Minister of Justice tabling a government bill to amend the Criminal Code. That probably explains why, in the public, people are reacting and why they are concerned about targeting certain cultures and certainly targeting immigrants.
I feel obliged to make reference to the offensive title of the bill, which I choose not to repeat, and which others have expressed as grossly offensive and an unnecessary descriptor. As pointed out by many others, it harkens back to the reprehensible historic descriptions of aboriginal Canadians.
As the bill is by and large focused on immigrants, many view it as discriminatory. It is as if the government has alleged the bill does not target immigrant communities and yet it is tabled by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. This is clearly a confused message.
As testified by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women:
The title is racist, discriminatory and further exacerbates the racism and stereotyping of some of us in Canadian society.... We should all remind ourselves of the treatment meted out to our First Nations, who were seen as barbaric, primitive and uncivilized....
The overt message of this act is that these barbaric practices will be brought into a pristine Canada where there is no violence, where women and girls are not subjected to these horrible practices of forced or early marriages, where polygamy is abhorred, and where there is no femicide — that is, no killings of women and girls. Our organization objects...to the label of honour-based violence....
I remind the government that is coming from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. This association and a number of others testified before the Senate and referenced the instance of polygamy in British Columbia since the 1950s, yet to be effectively addressed by Canadian authorities.
In speaking to the bill before the Senate committee, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration shared that, in his view, the intent of the bill is to:
...help to ensure that no young 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.
Those are the very words of the minister.
He further went on to claim the measures “would improve protection and support for vulnerable individuals, especially women and girls”. The question then before us is this. Would Bill S-7 actually deliver on that intent? I wish to make it clear that in my opinion no woman, or frankly any man, girl, or boy regardless of their race, citizenship, or religion, should be made a victim of gender-based violence, including forced or underage marriage.
As a co-founder of a sexual assault centre in Edmonton, I am well apprised of the dangers and risks far too many girls and women face. I am also aware of the many factors that prevent girls or women from revealing the abuse to authorities. This is a significant factor raised by many who have concerns with the effectiveness of the bill to genuinely address or prevent abuses, particularly by criminalizing the actions.
It should also be kept in mind that polygamy is already prohibited in Canada.
My comments will by and large reflect the views of the bill and the issues involved held by a number of communities of women, as well as legal experts and associations that address trafficking and abuse, as to whether Bill S-7 would actually deliver the remedies and protections alleged to be contained in the bill by the minister.
A common concern has been raised about the inadequate consultation with the potentially impacted communities and the many organizations and experts involved in the matter of forced or underage marriage. I have spoken with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and the Edmonton-based Indo-Canadian Women's Association and many of its members, as well as organizations addressing trafficking.
Some time ago, I met with a group of Canadian women who were concerned about the failure of the Government of Canada to take enforcement action against the situation in Bountiful. This is despite the direction of the courts that enforcement action is possible under the Criminal Code, reportedly, to protect young girls brought into Canada from the United States for the purpose of polygamous unions.
According to the Indo-Canadian Women's Association:
Given the widespread occurrence of this practice and its harmful effects, many countries have undertaken a number of initiatives to counter it....
In Canada, there are a number of grassroots initiatives launched by community organizations such as the Indo Canadian Women's Association that seek to educate the community and provide links to social and medical resources for those seeking assistance in the community. Through education and continuing efforts of the community, we can begin to leave our mark in ending this harmful practice.
I would like to add that just a few minutes ago I spoke to a very respected member of the Edmonton Muslim community, Soraya Hafez, who is concerned about the bill, in particular because she is seeing a refocusing away from prevention and support to the community organizations, such as her own, and toward the criminalization of this kind of behaviour.
That view has also been endorsed by Preet Atwal, a young Sikh woman in Edmonton. She writes:
The statements presented do not seem to be supported by real statistical or realistic data, spreading myths about arranged marriages. It is making it seem as if violence against women is a cultural issue only taking place in certain communities. Criminalization will only further marginalize radicalized communities and will not do anything to actually prevent forced marriages and violence against women. If we truly wish to combat that issue we should use education, community awareness, and law enforcement....
Those are profound viewpoints.
I noticed that the Minister of Status of Women had previously said that she had also spoken to this Edmonton community. They are deeply disturbed that she had suggested that their conference on honouring young women was about honour killings. In fact, it was actually about honouring young women in the Asian community, and I was delighted to participate in that conference.
I would also like to share briefly the words of Avvy Yao-Yao Go, who is the director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. She also testified before the Senate on Bill S-7. She stated:
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. It exudes hypocrisy disguised as morality. It mocks the practice of polygamy elsewhere as a sign of cultural inferiority while ignoring the fact that polygamy, both formal and informal, is being practised in Canada by some Canadians and that all too often marriages break down in Canada due to infidelity and/or abuse.
Alia Hogben, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, testified at the Senate that she thinks it is important to consider the views based on the direct experiences working with women who are at risk of forced marriages or abuse in their marriages.
First let me acknowledge how pleased we are that the government is paying attention to the issues within violence against women and girls. There is definitely a kernel of genuine concern being expressed by this act, and we support the intent of addressing the issues of forced or early marriages, polygamy and other forms of gender-based violence.
She says the council is less convinced that these proposed measures are necessary or appropriate. They are also disappointed they were not accorded the courtesy of being consulted in the initial stages of drafting the bill.
They identified that the current Criminal Code and Civil Marriage Act already criminalize polygamy and bigamy. In their view, what is sorely missing is the attention to actually enforcing these laws and the assignment of resources to address problems faced by immigrants and other victims. This appears to be a common view of those actually working with trafficked women or women attempting to escape forced or abusive marriages.
They are equally concerned at the focused attention on certain backgrounds, given the high level of violence against all Canadian women and girls. Some have mentioned, as have some of my colleagues, the fact that there is still a refusal by the government—and, sadly, by the Premier of Alberta—to call an inquiry into the over 1,800 missing aboriginal women and girls.
They have noted the failure to prosecute polygamy over the past six decades. They remind us that as recently as 2011, the courts have clarified that charges can go forward under existing laws.
What they recommend instead is to engage and educate the community on the law and their rights and to build the capacity for community-based responses to human trafficking. They also emphasize the need to eliminate the vulnerabilities that lead to trafficking.
Those I have talked to say that they think there should be more support to settlement services and that we need to consider the particular vulnerability of poor or abused women. We need organizations to be onside with the law, as they are the very mechanisms who help those who are being abused.
Finally, I would like to add in closing that they are puzzled that the government is not also including civil proceedings, as many of women would be frightened to be engaged in criminal proceedings.