Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today and speak to Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act. Among other things, this bill strongly condemns underage and forced marriages, which are deplorable human rights violations that are regrettably taking place with Canadians and may even be taking place on Canadian soil.
A forced marriage is one in which at least one of the two spouses is entering the marriage without his or her free and enlightened consent. There is a clear distinction between forced and arranged marriages. In an arranged marriage, both spouses consent to the marriage.
There have been various studies and reports on forced marriage that demonstrate that this is an unfortunate reality in Canada. In August 2013, the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario published a report that found that front-line service providers in Ontario had encountered 219 instances involving persons in forced marriages between 2010 and 2012. In 92% of the cases, the victim of the forced marriage was a female, and in 30% of the cases the victim was under the age of 18. All of the individuals forced into marriage experienced violence.
A study conducted for Justice Canada that was based on interviews with service providers from Montreal and Toronto in 2008 also confirmed that there were Canadians who had been subjected to forced marriage, and concluded that, “...it is the government's duty to address the problem of forced marriage and to protect those who are threatened with it or are already its victims”.
Another study for Justice Canada, conducted in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver in 2010, concluded:
Based upon the estimate from service providers who are dealing with the incidence of forced marriage in Western Canada, our conclusion is that forced marriage is not sporadic in Western Canada. ...half of the respondents said it is “widespread” or “common” or “becoming common”.
The victims of this deplorable practice are most often young women, and occasionally men, who are being forced, usually by their own parents or other family members, to marry someone they are unwilling to marry. These young people are sometimes even made to abandon their education for the purpose of being married against their will. Some victims are told that they are going overseas to a relative's wedding, only to discover upon arrival that the wedding ceremony is, in fact, their own. Indeed, Canadian consular affairs has received over 100 requests for consular assistance from Canadians abroad related to forced marriages since 2009.
International studies show that girls who marry early are at far greater risk of experiencing complications in pregnancy and childbirth, including higher maternal mortality rates; experiencing violence in the home; and having their education disrupted. It is clear that underage marriage violates girls' basic human rights and prevents them from fully participating in society.
There is currently no national minimum age below which marriage may be legally contracted in Canada. Federal legislation applicable only in Quebec sets the minimum age at 16. Elsewhere in Canada, the common law is unclear but appears to set the minimum age at 14 for boys, 12 for girls, and sometimes as low as 7 years of age.
Bill S-7 would introduce a national minimum age for marriage of 16, below which no marriage may be contracted under any circumstances. Setting the minimum age to marry at 16 across Canada is consistent with current practices in like-minded countries, such as the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Provincial and territorial legislation would still impose requirements for marriages between the ages of 16 and 18 or 19, depending on the age of majority in the province or territory. Requirements such as parental consent or a court order would provide added safeguards to permit mature minors between the ages of 16 and 18 to marry in exceptional circumstances, such as where they have a child together and wish to marry.
However, parental consent to the marriage of a minor may not be sufficient to protect against forced marriage because it is typically the parents who are forcing the marriage upon the unwilling child. As a result, the Minister of Justice has engaged his provincial and territorial counterparts in a discussion with respect to enhancing legislative measures that fall within their constitutional jurisdiction to protect against forced marriages by requiring judicial consent in all marriages involving a minor.
Last fall, the House debated my private member's motion, Motion No. 505, to request that the government ban the use of proxy, telephone, fax and Internet marriages as a means to spousal sponsorship. Such marriages are not legally recognized when performed in any Canadian province or territory, but they are currently recognized by Canadian immigration law when conducted outside of Canada in the countries where they are legal. The unfortunate reality is that these practices can be used to force individuals into non-consensual marriages.
When I spoke to people in my riding and across Canada about my motion, I gave the example of a young man who lives in Canada, and was born and raised in Canada. What often happens is that he has a cousin in a country where this practice of telephone, fax or Internet proxy marriages is legal. The family of this young man might want the cousins, aunts, uncles and relatives to be able to immigrate to Canada and become new Canadians, which is obviously a desirable and good goal to have. There are many people who are applying for status in Canada.
In this case, what the family would do is force their son to marry by signing a fax or by signing on to Skype and marrying someone who he has perhaps never met and who is in another country. Sometimes, it is someone who is already related, such as a cousin, for example. After that marriage is performed, the family would ask that young man to then sponsor his new bride for a spousal application for citizenship to Canada.
Frankly, this was a huge loophole in the immigration regulations that I believed needed to be fixed. Not only was this a loophole, but the motion would prevent those marriages from being forced. It is just not in line with Canadian values of openness and gender equality. People get married to someone who is not even in the same room at the time. We at least want to ensure that they have met.
To be clear, Bill S-7 is about barbaric cultural practices. It is not about arranged marriages, neither was my private member's motion.
It was certainly a proud day when my motion passed in the House of Commons in December 2014. I look forward to the government amending the necessary regulations in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to protect these young women and men. As I said, this was an important fix that needed to happen.
Speaking of forced marriages, we have seen the tragic consequences of young people who refuse a forced marriage. Some run away and go into hiding. Some are beaten or even murdered because of a misguided belief that their refusal to enter into or continue in a forced marriage has somehow tarnished the family's honour.
On January 2, 2010, a young woman was brutally beaten by her uncle and three cousins in Calgary because she refused to marry a man her uncle had chosen for her. They were convicted of assault causing bodily harm in 2013, three years later.
On April 17, 2009, a 19-year-old woman fled her home in Montreal, terrified because her parents were going to force her to marry a man she did not want to marry. A few months later, on June 30, 2009, that same woman, her two younger sisters and her father's first wife in a polygamous marriage were brought together on the pretext of a family vacation. Their bodies were found in a car submerged in the Kingston locks. This barbaric honour killing of the young Shafia sisters and their stepmother came as a shock to the whole country.
Preventing such tragedies from occurring again is the primary objective of this laudable bill. It contains tools to protect potential victims from an impending forced or underage marriage in the form of specific peace bonds, which can be ordered by a court when there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person will participate in an early or forced marriage or will take a child out of Canada with the intent of subjecting the child to an early or forced marriage. I can talk more about peace bonds later.
Our government will not tolerate spousal abuse in so-called honour killings or other gender-based violence. While the opposition refuses to even acknowledge these practices as barbaric, our government is taking a strong stand against these practices and is leading international efforts to address them. I hope all hon. members will support this important piece of legislation.