Mr. Speaker, I am always pleased to stand in debate in this place, particularly on the matter currently before us, Bill S-7,, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.
I have had the privilege of being the Minister for Multiculturalism for over seven years. During my mandate, I was also the minister of citizenship and immigration for almost five years, during which we introduced important reforms to strengthen Canada's great tradition of openness to the world, pluralism and unity in our diversity.
I often recall that our country, according to McGill University historian Desmond Morton, was founded by those on the losing side of history. This is a very sensitive thing to say, but he talks about the aboriginal peoples; the inhabitants of New France, who lost out in the conquests; the United Empire Loyalists who were on the losing side of the American Revolution and became established in English Canada; and the black loyalists who were freed U.S. slaves. There were also several other generations, such as the Jewish refugees in the early 20th century; refugees from communist regimes, such as the Hungarians in 1956, the Czechs in 1968 and the Vietnamese in 1979; and my ancestors, the Irish who fled the great famine and the Scots, or the Highland Clearances Scots.
All of these people were, in a sense, the underdogs of history, including our founding prime minister, John Macdonald. Because of that, we have, in our DNA, deeply rooted in our culture, habits and political reflexes across party lines, developed this sense that we have a special vocation among the nations of the world to be a land of freedom that respects cultural differences and that encourages people to celebrate what is best about their cultural antecedents. Today we call multiculturalism, what some refer to as pluralism, which perhaps as a term reflects more respect for people's most deeply grounded beliefs.
We also believe, of course, that freedom of conscience and religion are fundamental freedoms. It is not a coincidence that these are the first freedoms mentioned in the Charter of Rights, because it is through such freedoms that we define who we are and our deepest commitments as human beings. These are values that are primordial for us as Canadians, but they are not the only values that are.
We also believe as a country that freedom of religion and conscience, respect for cultural diversity, our democratic values, all of these things are rooted in our shared belief in the inviolable dignity of the human person. To quote the late Right Hon. John Diefenbaker, former prime minister, these values are rooted in what we understand to be “the sacred personality of man”, and certain values flow from that sense of human dignity.
For example, we believe that in the equality of men and women, as a self-evident principle of our society, some practices, which may be rooted in culture or tradition and seek to treat women as property rather than people, are simply wrong, must be discouraged and, where appropriate, rendered illegal. We believe that to compel women, for example, or potentially even men, boys and girls, to enter into marriages against their will is a fundamental violation of their personal integrity and dignity as human persons. We believe that compelling people to adopt the aberrant practice of polygamy should be discouraged and ultimately prohibited in our law.
I do not believe that the assertion of such absolute principles in our law contradicts the spirit of pluralism that is one of our great defining characteristics. To the contrary, the two support each other. That is to say that I do not believe that our multiculturalism equates to cultural relativism. I believe it is an invitation again to celebrate what is best about our particular cultural antecedents, but it is not a licence to import to Canada practices that are profoundly undemocratic, which are predicated on a denial of the equality of men and women, for example, or freedom of religion and conscience, or the integrity of the human person.
That is why we have proposed Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act. I know the short title is provocative and it has elicited debate here. Frankly, that was the point. Mission accomplished.
We wanted to drive home the fact that these practices are unacceptable in our society.
That is why, when I was minister of citizenship and immigration a few years ago, I published the new study guide for citizenship applicants called Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.
Let us be clear: the Citizenship Act has long stipulated three obligations for permanent residents who want to become Canadian citizens. First, they must reside in Canada for a period of four years; second, they must demonstrate knowledge of one of Canada's two official languages; and third, they must demonstrate a knowledge of Canada, for example, its history, institutions and symbols.
Since the 1970s, an exam has been used to assess citizenship applicants' knowledge of Canada.
When I became the minister of citizenship and immigration in 2008, I discovered that the exam to assess this knowledge, as well as its accompanying learning and study guide provided a very superficial overview of Canada. They included virtually no Canadian history and almost no information on our cultural expectations.
That is why I wrote the following in the new guide Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.
Canada's tolerance and diversity do not include certain “barbaric cultural practices”, such as so-called honour crimes, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, violence against women, and other practices, which we condemn in Canada and which are severely punished under our law.
That was an important message to send. We used the word “barbaric” very intentionally. We realized that it would draw attention, and that was the point. It was a teaching opportunity, an opportunity to raise our concern that we do not want such practices being justified in Canada under the licence of multiculturalism.
The bill before us takes that intention one step further by plugging certain loopholes, which frankly never should have existed, in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act, and the Criminal Code.
For example, as minister of citizenship and immigration, I learned that families from a polygamous marriage had entered Canada without having declared the polygamous relationship.
They did not declare their polygamist relations, but they came to Canada clearly in violation of the spirit of our law. These amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act would close those loopholes.
Similarly, this would clarify, under the amendments to the Civil Marriage Act, the requirement for free and enlightened consent and the requirement for ending an existing marriage prior to entering another to avoid, again, polygamy. It would further create new offences for actively knowing or participating in a forced marriage, which is something the United Kingdom and other countries have done, and other consequential amendments.
I believe that this is a reasonable, and frankly modest, sensible series of measures, which Canadians expect to actually strengthen our tradition of pluralism by demonstrating that there are reasonable limits to it.