Mr. Speaker, I am always pleased to rise to defend the rights and freedoms of women in Canada. As a woman, as a mother and as a member of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, I believe that no woman should be subjected to gender-based violence. This is not a cultural problem—it is a societal one.
That is why I find the title of Bill S-7, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, offensive. We have gotten used to the Conservatives' catchy titles, since they love to turn their bills into newspaper headlines, but this one is an alarming racist stereotype. Without even reading the text of the bill, we already know that the government is targeting specific communities that act in a brutal or cruel way, which is what “barbaric” means.
All forms of violence against women are brutal and cruel. We do not need to target a specific community to address violence. Once again, the Conservative government is seeking to please a voter base without worrying about the consequences of what it is proposing.
As I said, I am a member of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. Witnesses shared their opinions on the provisions of this bill before this committee on several occasions. I would like to draw from what they said to explain why this bill is not the appropriate response to the serious problem of gender-based violence.
With regard to polygamy, part 1 amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to specify that a permanent resident or foreign national is inadmissible on grounds of practising polygamy in Canada. The bill provides for the deportation from Canada of anyone who practices polygamy.
My first question is this: will the communities in western Canada who practice polygamy be affected by this bill or is the Conservative government just trying to target immigrant populations? Does the word “barbaric” apply to everyone in this case or does it apply only to immigrant communities?
I am also concerned about the argument that the Conservative government is using to defend this bill. The government is saying that this bill will protect immigrant women. Polygamy becomes grounds for a departure order and for banning polygamist men and women from entering the country.
How can we protect these women if we are deporting them? Where are the provisions to protect them? The government is going to send them back to their own country and wash its hands of them, saying that the problem of polygamy is resolved in Canada. However, it is my understanding that even the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights submitted a report indicating that complementary measures must be implemented to address the polygamy problem. What is the point of those recommendations?
This Conservative government does not even consider the recommendations of its own senators.
Part 3 of the bill amends the Criminal Code regarding forced marriage in order to clarify that it is an offence for an officiant to knowingly solemnize a marriage in contravention of federal law. It also provides that it is an offence to celebrate, aid or participate in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons being married is doing so against their will or is under the age of 16 years.
It is clear that everyone in the House wants the same thing: we are fighting forced marriage, which is an attack on the rights and freedoms of women. No woman should be subjected to gender-based violence, which includes forced and underage marriage. However, criminalizing forced marriage by creating a separate offence in the Criminal Code is not a wise solution. In saying that, I am echoing what the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic said when it appeared before the Standing Committee on Status of Women last month. This organization works on violence against women and fights forced marriage. I want to emphasize that because these are the people we should be listening to as we make decisions about legislation. We cannot draft bills as important as Bill S-7 without listening to the advice of people on the ground.
Women who are forced to marry do not necessarily want to speak out because they are afraid of leaving their family or exposing them to prosecution. Once again, if we criminalize forced marriage, these women will no longer seek out assistance or legal services.
Also, addressing the problem of forced marriage by amending the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act is a delicate matter. A number of witnesses told us that women who have a precarious immigration status and are victims of violence, particularly by forced marriage, are less protected than Canadian women or permanent residents. Because of the way the system is designed, they can be deported just for being victims of violence.
In addition to this lack of protection there is also a lack of information. Sponsored women who are victims of violence do not report their sponsor for fear of being deported, because they do not know what consequences this will have on their status. Instead of blaming them, as this bill does, we should be creating a process that ensures that women have basic information on immigration rules. The more women know about their rights, the more comfortable they will be speaking out against the violence they suffer.
Every time we talk about violence against women, the organizations and individuals we hear from mention the need to have a national strategy to prevent violence against women. Practically everyone says the same thing: education through prevention must be the focal point of our efforts to fight violence against women. In order to do that, associations and organizations must receive adequate funding and support for their initiatives. They have ambitious, promising programs that could help put an end, in the long term, to all forms of violence, including polygamy and forced marriage, as we are discussing here today.
In closing, I would like to say that people want to be protected and they want to integrate. Unfortunately, this bill targets them and makes them out to be criminals.
The use of the word “barbaric” in the title of the bill categorizes violence against women. It reinforces marginalization and stereotypes. To marginalize is to isolate the people we should be protecting and helping break free of this vicious circle.
I know that the Conservative government has a tendency to turn a deaf ear when we on this side of the House try to make changes to its bills. However, I invite the minister to hold serious consultations on a wide scale with community groups and experts in order to effectively deal with the problem of sexual violence.