House of Commons Hansard #219 of the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was illegal.


Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.


Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is appropriate that I rise in the House today with great disappointment to debate Bill S-7 , which is offensively called a zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.

Yesterday, the government members of the House had the opportunity to vote to create a national action plan to end violence against women, and all but one chose to vote against a plan that would genuinely work to end violence against women. Instead, here we are faced with Bill S-7 , which will likely pass and will likely inflict more violence on women.

I would like to state for the record that the crimes the government would see as “barbaric cultural practices” are found in all cultural groups and among all communities. Gender-based violence includes what the Conservatives like to call “honour killings”, forced marriages, and polygamy, and all of these can be found in white, Christian homes that have been in Canada since Confederation.

What does serve to make immigrant and refugee women more vulnerable in Canada is a culture that marginalizes them, a society that racializes and stereotypes them and a political climate that places systemic barriers between them and their ability to claim the rights to which they are entitled.

Bill S-7 works to fan the flames of the Islamophobic and racist stigma that immigrant women face. It names problems that all women face as “cultural” and then, in practice, it clamps down on immigration policy that is already discriminating against refugees and immigrants from South Asian, Arab, and African states.

I, alongside my feminist colleagues from all regions, are sick and tired of having to battle against xenophobic, misogynistic legislation that masquerades as feminism in Parliament.

Alia Hogben, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, came to testify at the Standing Committee on the Status of Women this year when we were studying violence against women. There she said:

lt is dehumanizing and degrading to label certain forms of violence as barbaric when all of it is so. Why are some politicians labelling some practices as barbaric and linking it with immigrants only? Polygamy, femicide, and forced marriages are all present in our Canadian society with one significant example of the Mormon community of Bountiful, which has been practising all of these since the 1950s. Why the blame and targeting of immigrants or visible minority groups?

Throughout my mandate as the critic for the status of women, I worked closely with a brilliant lawyer and advocate from the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario. Deepa Mattoo has taken it upon herself to do some of the most extensive research on early and forced marriage that we have in Canada. Therefore, she is an expert on the crimes that the bill claims to address. She stands in fervent opposition to it, as do the vast majority of the advocates, lawyers, and community representatives who actually work with the victims of gender-based violence. This is what Deepa Mattoo has to say about Bill S-7 's offensive short title:

Giving it a shock factor name will not eliminate the issue. Instead it will force perpetrators to take this underground, ensuring the victims and potential victims are isolated from any resources. This causes a greater risk to their safety, not to mention their emotional and mental well-being.

At its core, Bill S-7 would create dangerous conditions for women who may indeed be in a vulnerable situation. However, instead of empowering these women and girls with the culturally appropriate education, tools, and services they need to claim their rights, Bill S-7 would see them deported or denied entry into Canada. What is incredibly threatening about the language of the bill is that it says that Canada can deny entry or deport people “if they are or will be practising polygamy”. This provision is problematic on every level. How can anyone deny immigration status to someone based on the suspicion that they will practise polygamy in the future? How can we start criminalizing individuals based on crimes we fear they might commit in the future? Last I checked, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration is not empowered with telepathic powers.

The government has already passed legislation that gives tremendous powers to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, so transparency in the immigration and refugee system in our country barely exists at all anymore.

The NDP has repeatedly pointed out that making an individual's refugee status entirely contingent upon the discretion of the minister contravenes international human rights conventions. The government is now writing immigration law that would be adjudicated only by the discretion of the minister and would allow us to discriminate based on the suspicion of future crimes or the marriage practices of one's relatives or the practices of the community one comes from.

Dr. Hannana Siddiqui, from Southall Black Sisters in the U.K., said:

...the thing is deportation has always been a problem. It's not just for the man; it's for the women and the children. It doesn't resolve the problem of polygamy itself. It just creates discrimination, alienation and mistrust within minority communities.

I think you have to look at other ways of trying to resolve the problem.

When will this government understand? Deportation is never a solution to violence against women. When immigrant and refugee women are facing gender-based violence, the threat of deportation for themselves, their children, or their family will work to keep them in a violent domestic situation.

I would like to end my speech by talking in positive terms about what the Conservatives can do right now to substantially address violence against women.

First, they can listen to women themselves who have been the victims of violence. Bill S-7, along with almost all the legislation the government passes under the auspices of saving women, is paternalistic and does not benefit from any form of adequate consultation with the communities it would affect.

Second, they can listen to the experts, the advocates and service providers who are telling them that this bill is a terrible way to address violence against women and would likely create more violence in women's lives.

Third, they can take up the content of my Motion No. 444, which was in front of us yesterday, to create with all due haste a national action plan to end violence against women. This national action plan is what the advocates, experts, and service providers are asking for. This is what women themselves are asking for.

Fourth and finally, they can make substantive immigration reform that would ensure that women are never subject to deportation, detention, or removal if they are victims of violence or fear violence.

We must work to keep families together. We must inform women of their rights. We must create culturally appropriate services and shelters. We must end the threat of random, unfounded deportations, and we must work as a society and as a government to counteract racism and stigma.

This is what we can do.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.


Tyrone Benskin NDP Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for a very eloquent and powerful sharing of thoughts.

We hear the title of the bill and we are told by the Conservatives that it does not mean anything, that it is not separating anybody. However, we use the terms “cultural diversity” and “cultural communities”. We are using the term “barbaric cultural practices”. People hear the word “cultural”, and there is an instinctive walk toward certain communities.

I would ask my hon. colleague if she would care to comment on whether she feels this bill would actually open the door, on an immigration level, to a certain type of profiling—cultural profiling, if you will. I would ask my colleague to comment on that.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for raising the issue of the kind of explosive language that the government is using in the bill. It is the kind of language that we often see in the legislation that the government puts forward.

What is clear, what we heard from witness after witness, and what we heard in the status of women committee as well when we were looking at violence against women is that language matters. In this case, the connection was often made between the kind of language we have seen from the current government, in Bill S-7 but in other legislation as well, that seeks to fan the flames of racism and Islamophobia in our country. It is no accident that those kinds of connections are made by the current government. It is not just in terms of Bill S-7. We have heard it in pronouncements from members of the government in various forms.

The reality is that not only are we connecting it here to a situation that stands to create more violence in women's lives, but the Conservatives are also using this as an excuse to hack away at our immigration system to make it less transparent, to leave more power to the minister, and ultimately to change the face of Canada as they see fit.

I am proud to stand with my colleagues in the NDP against Bill S-7 and against the kind of regressive and frankly misogynistic legislation that the current government puts forward time and again.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her comments, because they are so significant in regard to what we heard in the citizenship and immigration committee.

I was a member of that committee. I heard testimony from representatives of the Canadian Bar Association, and they advised the Conservatives to simply scrap Bill S-7 because it would do far more harm than good, since it would jeopardize the victims of violence and potentially marginalize them from their families if they came forward. It would criminalize people and make women and children open to deportation.

What on earth would happen to these women and children who are deported because they are in a polygamist situation? They would go back to a country where they have no one and nothing.

When I asked the minister on Tuesday about the recommendations from the Canadian Bar Association, his response was simply to dismiss them. He said that their representatives were just a bunch of card-carrying Liberals and it did not matter what they had to say.

I wonder what my colleague has to say in regard to dismissing the concerns of the Canadian Bar Association.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague, who was the former critic on the status of women and is an incredible feminist member of Parliament. She is outspoken on the issues that matter to women in Canada.

It is absolutely ludicrous to hear the government not just dismiss but turn around and offend the Canadian Bar Association, a respected body that came out with a very strong recommendation against Bill S-7. Unfortunately, this behaviour shocks few of us anymore. The kind of interaction and attitude we see daily at committee vis-à-vis witnesses who do not agree with the Conservative government leads to all sorts of despicable behaviour.

As I said in my speech, it is so important for the government to listen to the witnesses who know most about this issue. They need to move away from their ideological agenda and actually hear from the advocates and community organizations that see this issue up close and personal every day.

I think of the work of Deepa Mattoo, who has moved heaven and earth to come up with research on the issue of forced marriage here in Canada and around the world. She is a woman who deeply cares about these issues. She came out and said we should say no to Bill S-7.

It is a bill that reeks of racism and discrimination. Let us stand up to build a better Canada. I am proud to be part of a team that does that.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.


Patricia Davidson Conservative Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today and have an opportunity to speak on Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.

This bill takes a strong stance to ensure that no woman or girl in Canada becomes a victim of any violent practice that violates basic human rights. Bill S-7 sends a clear message to individuals coming to this country that harmful and violent cultural practices are unacceptable in Canada. These practices are incompatible with Canadian values and will not be tolerated.

Bill S-7 strengthens laws in Canada through amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act, and the Criminal Code.

We have had the benefit of hearing from a number of experts in the field during the citizenship and immigration committee hearings. Some have criticized the bill; others have been in full support. All, however, agree that combatting violence against women and girls is an important and laudable goal.

I would like to paraphrase one of the witnesses who came before the committee. Ms. Chantal Desloges, an immigration lawyer, said very aptly that this bill sends a concrete statement about Canadian values.

Within Canada, there is no room for a culture of violence against women and girls. I believe that when there are gaps in legislation that have allowed perpetrators to abuse those very people who count on them for protection or that have prevented victims from getting help, it is our responsibility to ensure that those gaps are closed.

Among other things, this bill proposes to fill gaps that have been identified with regard to early and forced marriage. These deplorable practices principally victimize young women and are often carried out by their own parents or other family members.

If I may, I will paraphrase from another witness before committee. Ms. Lee Marsh, a victim herself of a forced marriage, testified that if she had known that what her mother was doing was against the law, she might have felt better equipped to refuse that marriage.

Ms. Marsh also told the committee that this bill in isolation is not enough to combat these practices. We on the government side agree. This bill provides solid ground to give tools to law enforcement and front-line service providers to bring perpetrators to justice and to protect victims, but in addition to the legislation, people need to be aware of Canadian laws and values. We are not ignoring the importance of raising awareness or of providing training and resources, nor are we overlooking the importance of working together with our provincial and territorial counterparts and community partners in the field. Our government, through various departments, has been working diligently for years with many different stakeholders on these very issues.

Just to give a few examples, Justice Canada and Status of Women Canada have provided funding to a number of non-governmental organizations to conduct awareness raising and training on honour-based violence and forced marriages. Justice Canada contributed funding for the development of a high school curriculum that will teach students about human rights, including those related to early and forced marriages.

Over the years, Justice Canada has organized workshops with front-line workers across the country, including child protection workers, shelter workers, community-based workers, police officers, and crown prosecutors to share expertise, create networks, and discuss risk assessments and appropriate services for victims of these horrendous acts.

Justice Canada and Status of Women Canada co-chair an interdepartmental working group on early and forced marriage, honour-based violence, and female genital mutilation. This working group is creating a federal-provincial-territorial working group on these same issues.

The justice department has published public legal education and information materials on family violence that include information on early and forced marriages, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation.

Justice Canada and the RCMP have also created training materials for police officers on these issues as part of their domestic violence training. This training will be updated to reflect the changes in Bill S-7.

As I have demonstrated, there are many layers to our government's approach to tackling these issues.

The bill is but one aspect of the ongoing and collaborative efforts being undertaken by this government to address these disturbing issues. It is an integral and necessary part of the government's multi-faceted approach to tackling the issues, which includes prevention, denunciation, awareness-raising, training, consultation and collaboration.

Some critics of the bill are nervous that by criminalizing these forms of violence, we risk stigmatizing people who are already vulnerable. We believe that it is imperative to recognize that these forms of violence exist and to address and denounce them. We need to send clear messages to victims that they have a right of refusal and we need to let potential perpetrators know that forced marriage is a crime. It is not acceptable to turn a blind eye to child abuse or spousal assault just because it happens behind closed doors.

Similarly, we should not shy away from denouncing early and forced marriage as forms of family violence that will not be tolerated in our society.

Bill S-7 would complement existing Canadian initiatives, both at home and abroad, put an end to barbaric cultural practices that go against Canadian values because they cause harm to women and girls and prevent their full participation in society. These practices that we have already talked about, which include early and forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation or cutting, have no place in Canada's free and democratic society.

Canada has long been a leader in this, and these are some of the things we have done on the international stage. Canada has made ending child, early, and forced marriage, or the CEFM as it is referred to, a foreign policy and development priority and is intensifying programming and advocacy efforts to address CEFM. These are some examples, and I will just name a few of them.

Canada spearheaded the initiative to establish the International Day of the Girl Child, which focused upon CEFM in 2012, which was its first year.

Then, in October 2013, Canada announced $5 million in new funding to address the causes and consequences of CEFM around the world. These funds were used for programs in many different countries.

In 2014, then minister Baird announced that Canada was contributing $20 million, over two years, to UNICEF toward ending CEFM. Also, in 2014, Canada committed institutional support to the efforts of the Royal Commonwealth Society to raise awareness in commonwealth countries about the need to end CEFM. Canada contributes to efforts to combat female genital mutilation by working with UN agencies and bilaterally with other countries, supporting projects to address violence against women and eliminate harmful cultural practices.

Those are just a few of the ways that Canada has been contributing to the international field in ending these barbaric practices. I am very proud that it is this Conservative government that is sending a strong message to Canadian society and to the world that Canada will not tolerate violence against women and girls. I would strongly encourage members of the House to give Bill S-7 their full support.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, what the government has been doing is putting in legislation that promotes discrimination and racism.

What happens when it is a Canadian-born person from a different culture that may be practising some of these? This is the discrimination piece. The government is saying to an immigrant that he can go back home, but someone born in Canada who does this will face the Criminal Code of Canada. We have legislation to deal with these issues, so why do we not use it?

It is the same with the terrorism bill. Conservatives were saying that Bill C-51 was the be-all and end-all, yet before it was even passed, they actually arrested people they felt were going abroad to be part of terrorism.

All in all, why is the government putting in place legislation that continues to discriminate and promote racism? Why is it not investing in services that would actually assist women?

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.


Patricia Davidson Conservative Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am really glad that question was asked because I just went through outlining a whole lot of things Canada was doing. While I did outline many things we were doing internationally, I really did not have enough time in my original remarks to talk about everything we were doing at home. In a minute I will tell the House about a few of the things we are doing at home as well.

I want to reiterate, however, as has been said over and over this afternoon, the bill does not talk about any particular racial or cultural practices. The bill does refer to any violence against women and girls. It sends a clear message to individuals coming to our country that harmful and violent cultural practices are unacceptable in Canada. I cannot understand why any Canadian would not want to ensure that people would know these types of harmful and violent cultural practices would not accepted in Canada.

Part of the question was why we were not doing some things. We are doing a lot of things. We are working in conjunction with many groups. Citizenship and Immigration Canada is working together with Justice Canada and the Status of Women Canada. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has many programs in place, as do the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Public Health Agency of Canada. These people are all working together. There are many programs in place, not only internationally but also domestically.

Motions in AmendmentZero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

It being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.


Ed Komarnicki Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK


That, in the opinion of the House, all Members of Parliament should be allowed to vote freely on all matters of conscience.

Mr. Speaker, my motion has a number of significant points that I am asking the House to support: first, that the motion apply to every member, regardless of rank or position in the House or party, and on all matters that come before the House captured by this motion whether in the nature of private members' motions or bills, government bills, motions or other legislative initiatives; second, that members be allowed to vote freely, meaning without order or demand by party leaders, House leaders, whips or anyone else in the party structure, to vote in a certain or particular way on pain of censure or sanction if they will not; and third, that this would be so in matters of conscience.

There may be a great deal of debate and some difference of opinion on what are matters of conscience. I can, however, say with a great deal of confidence that matters relating to life, more particularly to the termination of life at any time from the point of conception to the point of natural death, would easily fall within that definition. Whether or not to terminate before death naturally occurs, or to terminate a life before it fully becomes a living being or while it has the potential to be a living being is certainly a matter of conscience, as may be a number of other matters falling somewhere between these two.

In my view, a matter of conscience would arise out of a religious, moral or ethical issue that has to do with one's inner sense of what is right or wrong. The right to freedom of conscience is represented in all international conventions concerning human rights. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. There is no question that one's conscience is and ought to be sovereign.

In fact, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, commonly referred to as the charter, states, in paragraph 2, with regard to fundamental freedoms, “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion”. This fundamental freedom is found alongside those freedoms that we cherish: freedom of expression, freedom of the press, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. In fact, the first words in the preamble in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives rise to potential conscience struggles that may occur when interpreting laws or even with respect to charter matters when it states, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”, is bound to bring the rule of law, the supremacy of God into conflict at times.

When it comes to matters of conscience, Sir Thomas More said it best when he had to make a decision whether to obey God's law as he saw it rather than man, that one should be most cautious not to offend his conscience than anything else in the whole world. Of course, his head was taken off and placed on the Tower Bridge in London as the price for not offending his conscience.

An email made public, sent to the member for Papineau, the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, by former Liberal members of Parliament also made the point well when they stated in part:

We, the undersigned, former Liberal Members of Parliament, are concerned about your recent pronouncement that people who hold a particular view on a given moral issue, as a matter of conscience, cannot be Liberal candidates for the position of M.P. unless they agree to park their consciences at the entrance to the House of Commons and vote directly opposite to their fundamental beliefs, as directed by you.

In the House, the Conservative Party has on a number of occasions allowed for free votes, and that is the way it should be. The party policy also states very specifically in section 7 that the party believes in restoring democratic accountability in the House of Commons by allowing free votes. It states all votes should be free, except for the budget, for obvious reasons, main estimates, and core government initiatives.

On issues of moral conscience, the Conservative Party acknowledges the diversity of deeply held personal convictions among individual party members and the right of members of Parliament to adopt positions in consultation with their constituents and to vote freely.

The Supreme Court of Canada's decisions on the recent Lee Carter, et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, et al. decision, commonly referred to as the Carter decision, which related to end-of-life issues, and R. v. Morgentaler, commonly referred to as the Morgentaler decision, related to abortion, fall into the category where actions taken in the House should be the subject of free votes. In each case, the court relied on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and gave the House the benefit of the court's view on the charter's application.

The Carter decision essentially referred to section 7 of the charter, which reads:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

The decision said that it would require legislation allowing for physician-assisted death for a competent adult who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition. I may not agree with the court's logic in the use of section 7, but it has said that and it has said that Parliament needs to address that.

The type of legislation, the substance of the legislation and the views of the members may vary. Many members may struggle in deciding in good conscience whether or not they should support that piece of legislation, another piece of legislation or something in between. However, when it comes before the House for a vote, it should be a free vote.

Similarly, in the Morgentaler decision, the court decided in essence that the Criminal Code provisions then existing regarding abortion offended the same section 7 rights. The court was also of the view that it was Parliament's prerogative or obligation to put forth legislation, not theirs, that would balance this right with the rest of the charter that would provide for the protection of the unborn. In fact, section 1 of the charter states:

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

It is all conditional. This clearly indicates that there must be a balancing of interests, or at least a consideration of interests, if one truly wishes to rely on the charter.

Justice Wilson, on page 183 of the Morgentaler judgment, stated:

The precise point in the development of the foetus at which the state's interest in its protection becomes "compelling" I leave to the informed judgment of the legislature which is in a position to receive guidance...from all the relevant disciplines. It seems to me, however, that it might fall somewhere in the second trimester.

She based her views squarely on the charter, so I feel that it is safe to say that the protection of the unborn is a charter consideration relating to the unborn requiring legislative action by Parliament. She specifically left open the entirely different question of whether the unborn is covered by the word “everyone” in section 7, so as to have an independent right to life under that section.

There is no doubt that members feel strongly on matters such as this, relating to issues of life. Some would feel strongly that life is sacred and that they should not be required to vote for any legislation that is against their conscience if it takes or allows for the taking of such life after conception before natural death. These may be absolute positions, but on all matters of life, there may also be positions somewhere in between, where honest, sincere and good thinking members will, I am sure, struggle with their decision and differ in their views. Ultimately, however, they should all be free to vote with their conscience.

By allowing members to vote freely, it presupposes that members of differing points of view and different persuasions, personal convictions and religious beliefs are allowed to run for public office and to be elected by constituents. To say, as the leader of the Liberal Party, the member for Papineau, stated, that anyone who has a view other than what is commonly referred to as a “pro-choice” view cannot run for the office of a member of Parliament or, at the very least, would not be given a free vote on the same issue runs absolutely contrary to this motion, as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Indeed, it would run against the fundamentals of democracy, where issues should be debated freely and then voted upon.

The very definition of “Parliament”, which I have taken from How Parliament Works, by John Bejermi, stems from the French parler, meaning “to speak” or “to discuss”. “Parliament”, then, or this House is a meeting place where the representatives of the people can speak, discuss, criticize, argue and express their opinions publicly on all matters of state.

In Canada, therefore, we have a system called “parliamentary government”. It is regrettable that because of the positions taken by leaders like that of the Liberal Party, some of the press, the media, and others, we cannot have a good or reasonable debate on these issues, with contrary points of view, without it seeming to be something unusual, unacceptable, or in bad taste. It is most unfortunate. This has to change in this House. For too long we have felt that difficult issues should not be moved, debated, or discussed in Parliament, many times simply because we have strong views on the subject and do not want to entertain anything else. That is not what democracy is about.

When it comes to matters of conscience, there should be nothing that causes an MP to vote contrary to his or her conscience, for if members are forced to cross that line, they have violated who and what they are and what they believe in. I dare say that it is self-evident that no one should be required to do that. Their conscience is sacrosanct, inviolable, and should not be impinged upon, for indeed if it can be, what value is the opinion or vote of those members going forward and what reliance can be placed upon them. I think most Canadians and most constituents would expect no less from their members, even if they disagreed or had a different point or a different position. If the majority of constituents disagree, they should then elect a new member.

In fairness, these issues should not be raised time and again ad infinitum. There should be some rules around that. I personally like one of the rules that regulates whether a private member's bill or motion such as mine is votable. Does it involve issues that have already been considered in the session? If it does not, it can go forward. A new session could give rise to new debates.

Many have said that Parliament should use the charter section 33 “notwithstanding” clause to allow for an act or provision thereof to operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or section 7 of the charter. Although this option is available, it is something, in my view, that ought to be used sparingly and only in exceptional circumstances. That said, we cannot cherry-pick which part of the charter we like and which to disregard.

I found it interesting that the member for Papineau and leader of the Liberal Party was quick to put forward a motion, voted upon on February 24, 2015, asking the House to recognize the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Carter, which ruled that the prohibition on physician-assisted dying violated a section 7 charter right and stated that Parliament has a responsibility to respond to the Supreme Court ruling.

I did not see that same vigour and immediacy in requesting that this House respond to the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Morgentaler indicating that it is for Parliament to decide at what point the state's interest arises and becomes compelling so as to provide some protection for the unborn.

Indeed, the member asked that a special committee be appointed, with the usual parameters, and that the committee report on an expeditious basis to the House. Yet when the member faced the motion presented by the member for Kitchener Centre, which also asked that a special committee of the House be appointed to review the Criminal Code declaration of when a child becomes a human being and report to the House, the member for Papineau and leader of the Liberal Party voted against it.

I found it somewhat hypocritical when the member for Papineau and leader of the Liberal Party said on one hand that we need to ensure that we are charter compliant and respect the rights and privileges we may have under the charter when it comes to an issue of pro-choice but then voted against the protection of a right or privilege under the charter when he did not agree with it, as in the case where the court said that it is up to Parliament to draft legislation protecting the rights of the unborn. It is like respecting the decision of the Supreme Court when one likes it and not respecting the Supreme Court and the charter when one does not like the decision. We cannot be selective when it comes to charter rights unless we are prepared to use the “notwithstanding” clause.

In the same email sent to the member for Papineau and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada by former Liberal members, they made this point quite well when they stated:

Second, since your edict singles out the issue of being opposed to abortion, but only that issue, it clearly discriminates against a select class of people, namely those who oppose abortion, and no one else, such as those who might oppose, or be in favour of, say, assisted suicide. We believe that such discrimination is a clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 2 (a) which guarantees everyone, even Liberal Members of Parliament, “freedom of conscience”, and (b), which guarantees everyone, even Liberal Members of Parliament, “freedom of thought, belief...and expression”.

In my view, we need to get off the premise that some subjects are off limits for debate. We should have legislation go forward, agreeing that this is precisely the place where hard and difficult decisions must be made, accepting the fact that members may have to struggle with their conscience to support a particular position. In the interest of democracy, justice and good government, we want all members to vote on these issues freely and without impediment. I am hopeful and expect that not only my colleagues on this side of the House but all members of Parliament will see fit to support Motion No. 590.

This motion is straightforward and unambiguous. Matters of conscience for obvious reasons should be subject to free votes. I think it is a timely motion, especially given the most recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Carter case and the languishing ruling on the Morgentaler case, which so far parliamentarians have not been able to face head-on or even in a peripheral way.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Alexandrine Latendresse NDP Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak to Motion No. 590, moved my by my colleague from Souris—Moose Mountain.

There are just three weeks left before the 41st Parliament is adjourned, so this is probably one of my last speeches. Like my colleague who sponsored this motion, I will not seek another term in October, so this speech is a very special one to me. I cannot imagine a more perfect ending than a philosophical debate.

I would like to read out Motion No. 590:

That, in the opinion of the House, all Members of Parliament should be allowed to vote freely on all matters of conscience.

I think I read in the papers that my colleague from Souris—Moose Mountain thinks this motion is quite straightforward and that he does not anticipate any opposition from the government or opposition sides. I want to set him straight and also reassure him. Motion No. 590 certainly is short, but it is not straightforward in the least. Nevertheless, I am determined to support this motion and I think that my colleagues will do the same, based on what their conscience tells them.

Parliament's job is to pass laws for Canada. Even though a motion is not a parliamentary document with the same scope or weight as a bill, it does have to be moved in legal language. What, then, is the legal definition of conscience? My colleague provided his personal interpretation during his speech, but if we have to use a concept such as conscience, it cannot be limited to the uncertain and relativistic confines of a philosophical definition. On the contrary, it must be imbued with a clearly identifiable and established legal meaning understandable to all.

What, therefore, is the legal definition of a matter of conscience? One might say that all human beings know what conscience is, that it is unique to humans and that it is recognized automatically much like humans recognize beauty or truth. Esteemed colleagues, that is what Plato said. Even though philosophy is the noblest endeavour of humankind, our job here is to manage the federal Canadian state with just and constitutional laws, not to add new material to the western philosophical canon.

In order for that motion to be applicable and have any value at all to the parliamentary exercise that it is supposed to improve, a legal definition of the concept of conscience is crucial. Without that, this is nothing but hot air. However, we will never get that legal definition because it simply does not exist. This means that my colleague's motion could just as easily read as follows, “That, in the opinion of the House, all members of Parliament should be allowed to vote freely on all matters of beauty”. Good luck with that.

The problem here is the abstract notion of conscience. Even when we look at the substance of the motion, we come up against another question. I mean no offence to my hon. colleague, and I am surprised he does not know this already, but members can already vote freely. Nowhere in the rules of this House does it state that members are obligated to betray their values or their beliefs in exercising the mandate that they have been given—nowhere.

It is a bit embarrassing and I am disappointed at the public admission we are witnessing today, that not once during any of his terms in office was my colleague ever informed by his party that he could vote according to his conscience or, if he was, that he was not supported by his Conservative colleagues when they twisted arms and forced people to vote against their beliefs.

I know that many Conservative MPs have a fiercely electoral view of the parliamentary system and that they are quite committed to defending personal and local values in Parliament, even if it means being dysfunctional and spending their time torturing their souls in abstract debates. They hide their discomfort very well, I have to say. I did not see anyone on the government side suffering from a crisis of conscience when they all voted in favour of Canada's involvement in the Syrian civil war in support of Bashar al-Assad. Mea culpa, I should have paid a bit more attention. However, during that time, my conscience certainly bothered me, and I mourned the human suffering that befell the people of Syria.

I can say unequivocally that at no time during the past four years did I feel oppressed at vote time. I was not unduly pressured in any way and no one ever tried to compromise my conscience, regardless of its nature. Debate within our party is lively and salutary. We try to compromise according to what is best for Canadians in general and for each one of us in particular. The NDP takes an inclusive approach. We meet every week to discuss the votes on the agenda and to decide together what position we are going to defend. Every one of us contributes to what goes on in this building and every one of us is free to express his or her opinion.

We never rule out the possibility of a free vote. However, in the majority of cases, my colleagues and I arrive at a consensus that is acceptable for everyone.

To maintain their commitment to the parliamentary electoral system, and for the benefit of their political base, the Conservatives often congratulate themselves for having a few dissenting voices among their members in votes on private member's bills, as though this dissent were proof of inclusion or democratic vigour. Personally, I think this inability to agree amongst themselves is not something to be proud of, quite the contrary. Belonging to a political party is also an act of will and a choice freely made. You join a party because it represents your values. Once elected, members have the right to vote as they wish in the House, and they have the duty to inform their peers of their views on any upcoming votes. If a member votes against his or her party and there are consequences, that is between the member and the party. However, ultimately everyone can vote as they wish in the House and that will not affect a member's position in the House of Commons.

We are all free men and women, with our own free will and freedom of choice. Our duty is to come to an agreement with our colleagues and not to blindly defend our personal obsessions. That is why I believe my NDP colleagues should support this motion because, in the end, all of us are already free.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.


Ted Hsu Liberal Kingston and the Islands, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is good to speak to this motion today. First of all, let me say in speaking for the Liberal Party that in the Liberal caucus, private member's bills are free votes, as is the tradition in many other parties. Our leader, the hon. member for Papineau, has been very clear that the charter is at the heart of the Liberal conscience, and as we have long said, Liberals will always support the charter. We are the party of the charter.

I want to talk about how our leader, which the sponsor of the bill mentioned quite a bit in his speech, has led by example. In June 2013, he announced the open Parliament plan, which sought to proactively disclose travel and hospitality expenses and post them in a quarterly manner. I remember all the work my staff had to do for that. It was an extra expense and use of resources to make sure that travel and hospitality expenses were disclosed.

The Board of Internal Economy then was opened up and we expanded the performance audits of the House of Commons and Senate administration and worked with the Auditor General on public guidelines for future audits.

Liberals believe that openness and transparency are pillars of our democratic institutions, and that is why, as I just described, we became the first caucus in the House of Commons, in October 2013, to publicly post our expenses online.

Canadians have asked for openness and honesty in their elected representatives, not secrecy, not distrust, and not scandal.

The Senate, through extreme patronage and partisanship, has come to poorly serve the interests of Canadians. That is why our leader took decisive action on January 29, 2014, when he announced that the national Liberal caucus would only include elected members of Parliament and not appointed senators.

I remember that day very well, and I remember feeling that the leader was very courageous in doing that. I was somewhat taken by surprise, because there was no announcement to me before the day the leader took that action, but it was very courageous. It is a clear example of movement on the issue of the Senate and what role the Senate should play and how it could be improved to serve Canadians better.

Our leader also announced that a future Liberal government would put in place an open, transparent, and non-partisan appointment process for new senators. Our leader did more to reform the Senate in a single day than the Prime Minister has done in a decade.

At our convention in February 2014, we passed a comprehensive democratic reform motion that will help restore trust in our democracy. The motion includes a number of components, and I want to list them: open, democratic nominations of candidates; fewer whipped votes in Parliament and more free votes requiring individual MPs to assume full responsibility for their decisions; stronger parliamentary control over public finances, including an annual deadline for the budget; accounting consistency between the estimates and the public accounts; more clarity in voting on estimates; a costing analysis for each government bill; a requirement that government borrowing plans get Parliament's pre-approval; a truly independent, properly resourced Parliamentary Budget Officer; a more effective access to information regime with stronger safeguards against political interference; an impartial system to identify and eliminate the waste of tax dollars on partisan advertising; and careful limitations on secret committee proceedings, omnibus bills, and prorogation to avoid their misuse for the short-term partisan convenience of the government.

On that point, one of the things I have seen as a first-term MP right away is how the government has not respected the role of Parliament by using those things.

Further components include adequate funding, investigative powers, and enforcement authority to ensure Elections Canada can root out electoral fraud; proactive disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses, as I mentioned earlier, a more transparent Board of Internal Economy, and better audit rules; a truly independent Senate not based upon partisanship or patronage; and a commitment to establish an all-party process involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms.

This was the resolution that was passed at the Liberal Party convention in early 2014.

In March 2014, we put forward an opposition day motion to implement the proactive disclosure of travel and hospitality expenses for all MPs by the House of Commons administration. The motion passed unanimously.

In June 2014, the leader of the Liberal Party introduced the transparency act in Parliament. The bill sought to achieve the following reforms, which I would like to list.

First of all, it would have required that meetings of the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy be open by default. Today, MPs are making decisions about the regulations that govern their own spending with insufficient public scrutiny. This is a reform initiative that the Liberal Party called for in 2013 with the Liberal Party's open Parliament plan.

The board would still have been permitted to operate in camera, for example, for confidential personnel matters, something that is often the reason for taking a committee in camera, or when dealing with contracts.

The second part of the transparency act would have been to amend section 2 of the Access to Information Act, the purpose section of the act, so that all government data and information must be made open, and not only made open but made open by default in machine readable format.

Just before I stood up to give this speech, I was dealing with a statistician who had the experience of trying to download temperature data from temperature stations in Canada, and was having trouble doing that from the temperature data stored by Environment Canada. The individual had to rely on some help from somebody inside Health Canada in order to extract temperature data from Environment Canada, and still found problems with the Environment Canada data.

It is really important to make sure that data and information are easily available by putting them it in machine readable format.


Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

May 28th, 2015 / 6 p.m.


Garry Breitkreuz Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order, I am struggling to understand how what this member is saying relates to the motion. I hope he will at some point make it clear how he is suggesting that these are matters of conscience.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.


Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, on the same point, if you would allow me, I would love to explain for the member, because it is a very important issue.

What we have before us today is a motion that would have a fairly significant impact on the way in which the House would operate going forward into the future.

It is completely relevant for us to be talking about the different types of issues coming before the House of Commons that will change the way the House actually conducts itself.

When the member makes reference to, for example, proactive disclosure and the impact it has on the behaviour inside this chamber, and when the member makes reference to the idea of unanimous consent, all of these types of things have a real tangible impact in terms of what is taking place inside the House.

It is a motion that should be thoroughly debated. We should not be trying to limit the scope of the debate, because by limiting the scope of the debate we are doing a disservice to the member who has introduced the motion.

In conclusion, what I would suggest to the member is that he might want to be a little more patient and little more open-minded as members try to express a different perspective, which I think is quite enlightening. Quite frankly, if the member would allow my colleague from Kingston and the Islands the opportunity to finish his comments, I am sure he would have a better understanding in terms of the relevancy—

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

Order. The member Yorkton—Melville has risen on a valid argument, but as everyone with any experience at all in this House knows, we allow for a very broad debate when relevancy is at issue.

I have to say that although it is a bit of a stretch that the member for Kingston and the Islands is pushing, the reality is that he is putting forward a number of points with regard to freedom within his own party at least, within his own caucus, that have been allowed in the past.

I think he may have some argument from other parties as to how accurate that analysis is, but he is not beyond the point of relevancy. I will allow him to finish his speech. He only has one minute and 20 seconds to finish.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.


Ted Hsu Liberal Kingston and the Islands, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will continue. I was discussing the transparency act put forward by the leader of the Liberal Party, who was mentioned several times by the sponsor of this motion.

The third part of the transparency act would have eliminated all fees associated with the access to information process, except for the initial $5 filing fee. This fee would be refunded to the individual if the request was not fulfilled within 30 days, which often happens.

The fourth part would have expanded the role of the Information Commissioner by amending the mandate to include the ability to issue binding orders for disclosure, and the fifth part would have ordered a full legislative review of the access to information system.

Unfortunately, the government voted against this important legislation.

Our leader has also committed to revealing the Conservatives' undemocratic changes contained in the unfair elections act. Liberals believe strongly in openness and transparency, and we will continue to work hard to ensure that Canadians get the government that they deserve.

When we consider different questions in this House, sometimes it is easy. When the government brings in the 99th motion to cut off debate, that is easy. However, on most votes there are different factors to juggle. On all of these votes, it is really a matter of conscience. We have to figure out what we promised to our constituents. What did my party promise? What do scientists say? What is the best evidence? What are the consequences of the vote? What did we say in debate in the House? We have to juggle a lot of things, and all these votes are matters of conscience.

When the next speakers come up, whether in support of the motion or against the motion, I would suggest that they try to put forward what they think the boundaries are on what a vote of conscience is.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.


Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to participate in today's discussion of Motion No. 590 and try to get back on track. As we know, the motion concerns free votes on matters of conscience. I think all members would agree this is an important topic and Canadians want to know where parties stand on this issue.

My colleague, the member for Souris—Moose Mountain, has continued in a recent trend in private members' business by bringing forward a motion that pertains to how we conduct ourselves and do business in the House of Commons. I applaud the member for bringing forward such a straightforward motion. It might be one of the most direct and to the point motions we have had the pleasure to debate in this session of Parliament.

It reads:

That, in the opinion of the House, all Members of Parliament should be allowed to vote freely on all matters of conscience.

I would like to spend my time today reviewing some of the history of the use of the free vote in Parliament and our government's record in that regard.

I have a quick comment on the motion itself. It is worth mentioning, given our system of responsible government and the importance of confidence convention, the member for Souris—Moose Mountain has made the important distinction of limiting the motion to matters of conscience. No one would disagree that party solidarity on confidence matters is crucial, given the important consequences.

At the other end of the spectrum, matters of conscience are those where the representative role of individual members is the most acute. I hope no one would disagree that free votes are particularly important on these matters. We have seen a number of private members' motions come forward that address issues related to how we do business in this place and also the role we play as members of Parliament. Similarly, the motion addresses one of the most important roles we perform, and that is voting.

When I took a moment to compare the motion with some of the others we have debated in this session there was one clear difference that struck me, which I will address in a moment.

Since the start of 2014, the House of Commons has adopted Motion No. 428 from the member for Burnaby—Douglas, regarding the implementation of an electronic petitions system. We also passed Motion No. 431 from my colleague, the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt, related to the study of the process for selecting the chairs of committees of the House. The House also adopted Motion No. 489 from my colleague, the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, to study the process for electing the Speaker of the House of Commons.

A common thread among those motions is that they all required a consideration of the standing orders, the rules that govern the House. As members know, the standing orders are carefully balanced based on parliamentary principles and traditions and reflect the interests of all members. They set out in detail how things such as petitions or the selection of committee chairs are handled.

It is in relation to the rules of the House of Commons that I discovered a key difference between Motion No. 590, which we are debating today, and the other three motions I just outlined. What I noted is that when one takes a close look at the standing orders, nowhere does one find a reference to a free vote. As noted on page 576 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 0 'Brien and Bosc, it states:

There are no rules or Standing Orders defining a "free vote" in the House of Commons ... Simply defined, a free vote takes place when a party decides that, on a particular issue, its Members are not required to vote along party lines, or that the issue is not a matter of party policy and its Members may vote as they choose.

What we can conclude from this omission from the standing orders, and what Canadians should know, is that the principle of free votes and when they are used rests with each individual party.

How is it then that each party has used free votes in this place? As I mentioned at the outset, given our system of responsible government, I would suspect that all parties agree there is a need for party discipline when it comes to voting on such matters as, for example, the budget and main estimates. These have traditionally been matters of confidence. However, in what sort of circumstances have members been afforded freedom in how they vote? Let us look at some examples.

As stated in O'Brien and Bosc on page 577, it is not clear when the first free vote took place in the House of Commons, but that the first free vote of note took place in 1946, on the matter of milk subsidies. While voting down the government's intent to eliminate milk subsidies was not necessarily a matter of conscience, it did open the door to free votes on several key matters of government business through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The national flag debate in 1964 was treated as a free vote.

Similarly, as noted by Ned Franks in his November 1997 article in Policy Options, the issue of capital punishment and abortion, as items of government business, were treated as free votes by the Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party over those three decades. For example, there were a number of free votes on capital punishment, including the original legislation to abolish capital punishment in 1967, which passed, and a motion to reinstate capital punishment in 1987, which was defeated.

Generally, the well-publicized free votes that have taken place since 1946 have been largely limited to matters of morality and conscience. Following the significant reforms to private members' business brought about by the 1985 third report of the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, known as the McGrath reforms, there has been an even greater opportunity to have free votes. The McGrath reforms resulted in more private members' business being introduced and debated, resulting in more free votes. Importantly, these are also the matters of most significance for individual members and their constituents.

We as a government are quite proud of the record number of private members' bills that have become law under our government. I would contend that our government has a demonstrated record with free votes, especially on matters of conscience. Let me highlight two examples that would back this up.

Bill C-624, introduced by my colleague, the member for Ottawa—Vanier, called to amend the National Anthem Act, which was a gender issue. The second reading vote on the member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca's Bill C-279 on gender identity is another prime example. The vote passed 150 to 132 on June 6, 2012, with 15 government members voting differently than the majority of their caucus.

What are the characteristics of our Parliament that are relevant to this debate? First, our system is modelled after what is known as the Westminster style of government; that is, after the parliamentary institutions that emerged from the United Kingdom over the past 800 years. Legislative power is vested in Parliament to become law. Legislation must be assented to by each of Parliament's three constituent parts: the House of Commons, the Senate and the Crown.

The executive powers of government, in other words the power to implement government policies and programs, are formally vested in the Crown, but effectively exercised by the Prime Minister and cabinet, which belong to the governing party. The executive function is fulfilled by the Governor-in-Council, which is, practically speaking, the Governor General acting with, and on the advice of, the Prime Minister and the cabinet. The role of the executive is an important aspect of the principle of responsible government, which is a cornerstone of Westminster-style parliaments. The Prime Minister and cabinet are responsible to, and must answer to, the House of Commons for their actions.

Another important characteristic of our parliamentary system is that our Parliament is also the forum for our representative style of government. Members of Parliament are individually elected to represent their constituents within a single electoral district, and that is their representative role. In addition, members generally have campaigned and been elected as a member of a particular political party, and thus also have a responsibility to their constituents and parties to uphold the overall objectives of their parties.

This leads us to another key feature of our parliamentary system, which is the role of party discipline. This is the practice whereby individual members of a party are strongly encouraged to support their party's position on issues of importance to that party. This practice is not enshrined in the Standing Orders, but plays an important role in ensuring that the government of the day is held to account for its actions, making it clear to Canadians what the positions of the official opposition and other parties are in Parliament. At the end of the day, political parties are formed to accomplish certain collective goals and to represent key shared values. To do this, they require MPs to stand together so there is no ambiguity as to where the party stands.

I am proud to be a member of a party that stands for clear policies and stands up for essential Canadian values, and one of those values is the recognition that some matters are of such importance that members should be free to vote their conscience. This government will support the motion, and I expect that all hon. colleagues who respect the democratic process will do so as well.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.


Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I was afforded the opportunity in a point of order to address at least in part the motion, and I would like to be able to continue on with a number of thoughts.

This is a very important debate here this evening, and I would trust that members will get engaged in the debate.

I have had good fortune, primarily because in my provincial days, the constituents of Inkster for a number of elections saw fit to support me. I was able to serve for just under 19 years inside the Manitoba legislature. Now in the broader, much larger riding of Winnipeg North, which is about four times the size of Inkster, I am here in the Parliament of Canada, and what a privilege it is. At any point in time, on any type of debate, to be able to stand in our place and talk about what are important issues to Canadians, to our constituents, is such a privilege. I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity.

I have had many debates about the issue we have before us. I recall an incident that happened inside the Manitoba legislature at at time when there was a free vote. We had three members inside the Manitoba legislature, and during that free vote, one person voted against, one voted for and one abstained.

Free votes occur a lot more than most people think, and I see that as a positive. I recall having a discussion with a group of high school students about voting and what a member of Parliament should be doing and how they are obligated to vote.

People are not stupid, they understand and appreciate the parliamentary system. It is by far the best system in the world from my perspective. I might be somewhat biased, but I believe it is the most effective system. However, there are a number of things that need to be taken into consideration.

In regard to this group of students I met with, we had a very candid discussion about how members vote. Should members vote based on party lines? Should members vote the way their constituents would want them to vote? Or should they vote based on conscience? If we take a look at each and every one of those questions, it is not as simple as some might try to portray.

I do not know how many times I stood inside the chamber to talk about some really important issues for me personally. I am very passionate about a number of issues. I can talk at great length about the issue of poverty and the negligence of the Conservative government in this area.

I would ask the member who has introduced the motion, if I feel very passionate about the issue of poverty, is that not a matter of conscience? Would that mean that votes on health care or poverty should be based on one's conscience? The member was very limited in terms of what he thought were conscience votes. Are we to believe that those are the only ones that need to be taken into consideration?

I do not know how many times I have had the opportunity to talk about health care. There is a wide variety of issues within health care, and a number of votes have taken place.

One of my colleagues made reference to the budget itself. What is a budget? A budget is a document that ultimately makes decisions that affect each and every Canadian or resident in Canada. Would the member not argue that that should be based on conscience?

When we look at expanding into those other three areas, what about the party vote? The party vote is something that is expected in the parliamentary system. It would be very difficult if we are not able to count on fellow parliamentarians of the same political entity to be there for us on important votes, such as the budget and confidence votes. I can assure members that the Prime Minister, and I suspect even the mover of this motion, would recognize the importance of confidence votes. That is, in essence, a whipped vote. That is another aspect of votes that take place all the time.

Then there is my favourite vote, the one in which we are here serving our constituents. A good portion of them would say that we should vote along the lines that we believe constituents would vote. If 75% or 80% of our constituents say that we should vote a certain way, then we should vote that way. Would the member across the way argue for something like that? There might be some parliamentarians who would.

There are exceptions in all of these different categories.

We had a wonderful discussion with a particular group of high school students. However, it is not as simple as it might sound on the surface. In the minds of some, the way we vote should be strictly based upon our political party, and that is it. Others will say that we should vote the way our constituents want us to vote. Therefore, if 80% of our constituents say that we should be reducing taxes by 50%, then we should reduce taxes by 50%, no questions asked, not to mention the mechanisms and the manner in which it was determined that we had that high of a percentage of people saying that.

However, many would argue that no matter what, we should automatically vote the way our constituents tell us to vote. The same principle applies with conscience votes.

I would love to hear what other members have to say on those three points. The leader of the Liberal Party has been very candid on these issues. The member for Kingston and the Islands went through a litany of things in which the leader of the Liberal Party had shared with members of this chamber: private members' bills being free votes, the importance of issues such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect the individual minorities, and so much more.

There is a lot more to it than just having a quick one hour debate. It would be wonderful to see more discussion on it. I enjoy the issue of democratic reform, as did the 3,000 Liberal delegates when we were in Montreal. They voted to make changes—

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

Order, please. The time has expired for that speech.

Resuming debate, the hon. member for Trinity—Spadina.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.


Adam Vaughan Liberal Trinity—Spadina, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to address this issue, which lies at the heart of parliamentary democracy. We are elected by constituents and have choices every time we stand to cast a vote in the House of Commons: whether to represent our constituents' views, as we see them, configured to the majority; or to represent our party's views, as we may have campaigned on them; or to vote according to our consciences. I am unaware, having read the rules as I entered this place just about a year ago, of any prescription that tells us when we must represent the majority that we perceive to be in our constituencies, any rules that say when we must vote the party line, or any set of rules that talks about when we must vote according to our consciences. I do not know how to define the choice we have to make legalistically among those three different positions.

There are times, which I have seen in my own caucus meetings and hope others have seen it in theirs, where the caucus will debate an issue before it lands on a final position; and when members leave the caucus room, they leave agreeing to vote together to represent what they perceive as the position their party has taken. There are times when members have the right—and in my party it is a very clearly defined set of rights, around private members' bills in particular—where members have a defined right to vote as they see fit. When they do that, they have a choice. They can represent what they perceive to be the majority position in their ridings or what is in the best interest of their ridings, or they can choose to act individually based on their consciences.

What constitutes an issue of conscience differs from person to person in the House. What may be an act of conscience for one person may be perceived in a totally different light by somebody else. It is framed in this debate today—abortion and capital punishment being two examples—that yes, in the history of the House, those have been examples where people have been freed by all party leaders to vote according to their consciences. However, there are also conventions in the House—budget bills being one of them, and in my party protecting charter rights being another—whereby we try to invoke some discipline, and that discipline is held to account at election time, as it should be.

The explanations that individual members give as to how they cast their votes will be tested democratically, as they should be. Did their vote represent the majority interest of a riding, was it faithful to a party position, or was it, in fact, an expression of the members' consciences? All three of those are in play at every single vote. To pretend otherwise and introduce a private member's bill that suggests otherwise—that there are other conventions and other rules that override individuals' behaviour—I think does a grave disserve and dishonour to the bravery that individuals have shown in the history of the House.

What really bothers me about this bill is that it would seek to legalize something that is already legal. It would seek to allow something that is already allowed. It is not unlike the previous bill, which tried to make illegal something that was already illegal, as though somehow making it illegal twice would make it even more illegal. It is a redundant position and a redundant bill. I would say it is not an act of conscience in this case; it is an act of rhetoric.

While I appreciate that sometimes politics plays into that, it does not actually clarify or accurately describe the freedoms we have as individual members of the House of Commons, who freely choose to associate with parties and freely choose, each and every time we stand up, to cast our ballots and show our support for particular pieces of legislation. Sometimes the way we express it is the same, but the motivations are different. We also need to respect that as well.

Free VotesPrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

The hon. member will have six minutes and four seconds to complete his speech when the motion comes back before the House.

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Consumer ProtectionAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.


Annick Papillon NDP Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, this is a topic I have spoken about many times in the House, but it is an important one. The major Canadian banks are raking in huge profits, particularly as a result of an increase in bank fees.

There are more and more new bank fees, and taxpayers are becoming overburdened. In 2013 alone, Canada's six major banks collected more than $30 billion total in net profit.

While Canadian banks are raking in record profits every year, Canadians are racking up more and more debt. Debt has reached record highs: approximately 60% of Canadians are forced to live paycheque to paycheque, and there is no improvement in sight. Fewer Canadians are able to save money. That is worrisome.

In 1980, the ratio of household debt to personal disposable income was 66%, and now it is 164%. That is an incredible and very worrisome increase. The Governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, has stated that household debt in this country is a major risk factor for the Canadian economy. How can we keep the economy going when households are so far in debt?

Credit card interest rates can be as high as 18.9% for cards issued by financial institutions and 24% to 28.8% for cards issued by department stores and gas companies. That is huge.

The NDP is proposing that consumers be given reasonable access to credit cards with an interest rate that does not exceed prime plus 5%. That is reasonable. Only the NDP is proposing such measures. The Conservatives and the Liberals have never made any such proposals.

What is more, no one should have to pay $2, $3, $4 or even up to $6 to withdraw their own money from an ATM. That is another issue the NDP is tackling. Every year, Canadians pay $420 million in ATM fees. That is completely unacceptable.

When I asked the Minister of Finance about this, he said that he had no intention of cutting into the banks' completely unacceptable profit margins. It is a bloated amount that produces profits for those on one side and debt for those on the other.

We want to cap ATM fees at 50 cents per transaction. That is still nearly double what that type of transaction costs the banks, so it is significant. Once again, this is a reasonable proposal, and we hope that the government will listen to reason. However, unfortunately, we have not seen any such measures, and that is a real shame.

Addressing the issue of bank fees would have a real impact on people's day-to-day lives and their weekly and monthly bills. If we want to help Canadians make ends meet, the first thing we need to do is cap ATM transaction fees at no more than 50 cents per transaction, as per the NDP proposal, and limit credit card interest rates to prime plus 5%, which is reasonable.

I would like to hear what the Conservatives have to say about these simple and obvious measures.

Consumer ProtectionAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Oshawa Ontario


Colin Carrie ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment

Mr. Speaker, I am always prepared to reassure the members of the official opposition, especially when it comes to reducing costs for businesses and consumers. Similarly, I always appreciate the opportunity to let Canadians know how we are improving the lives of Canadians consumers and the middle class, and to a much greater extent than any other government.

Let me reassure the hon. member that under the leadership of the Prime Minister, our government is standing up for consumers and saving Canadians money. We know that Canadian families work hard to make ends meet. Every dollar certainly does count.

While companies will look out for their bottom line, our government is looking out for all Canadians. When Canadians make decisions about how to spend their money, they must be assured of a voice, a choice and fair treatment. In the October 2013 Speech from the Throne, our government committed to take additional action to protect Canadian consumers.

We understand that Canadians are tired of hidden fees. That is why we have secured voluntary commitments from Canada's eight major banks to enhance low-cost bank accounts and offer no-cost accounts to vulnerable Canadians. Banks have also committed to provide free monthly printed credit card statements.

We have worked with the provinces to maintain the integrity of the framework for payday lending products and to support provincial efforts to appropriately regulate all high-interest-rate payday lending products.

However, our initiatives go beyond law-making and regulation and include public outreach and education. In April 2014, we announced the appointment of Jane Rooney as Canada's first-ever financial literacy leader. Her mandate is to collaborate and coordinate activities with stakeholders to contribute to and support initiatives that strengthen the financial literacy of Canadians. This initiative will allow the government to broaden its efforts and help Canadians make more informed choices for themselves and their families.

Let me also remind the hon. member that Canadian banks understand that they operate in a highly competitive environment and that they must be prepared to respond to the specific and often changing needs of Canadian consumers. Accordingly, the government believes that the best consumer protection framework is one in which there is competition, fees are disclosed, and consumers can exercise choice.

For example, we introduced regulations relating to credit card agreements, including lines of credit and credit cards, that came into force in 2010. These regulations limit business practices that are not beneficial to consumers. They require the provision of clear and timely information to Canadians about credit products, with particular emphasis on credit cards.

Specifically, the government has taken steps to update the existing financial consumer protection framework with several key measures, which include, for example, mandating an effective minimum 21-day interest-free grace period on all new credit card purchases when the customer pays the outstanding balance in full and requiring express consent for credit limit increases.

In November 2014, the Minister of Finance welcomed proposals submitted by Visa and MasterCard to reduce their credit card fees for merchants, which should ultimately result in lower prices for consumers.

The opposition voted against every one of these measures.

We will continue to help business and the middle class with meaningful support rather than the inaction that is too common from the opposition.

Consumer ProtectionAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.


Annick Papillon NDP Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives have it all wrong. In fact, just recently we noticed that there are new banking fees. Now, a person has to pay a fee in order to pay their mortgage. It was not enough to pay a fee to pay a bill at the bank, now we have to pay new banking fees. Everything the parliamentary secretary just said is wrong.

It is not just the banks that are making huge profits on the backs of Canadian families, who are not asleep at the switch. Instead of addressing the problem of collusion at the gas pumps, the government keeps subsidizing the oil industry to the tune of billions of dollars.

The NDP is proposing concrete solutions yet again and we will do so by enforcing the provisions of the Criminal Code and the Competition Act, which the current government chooses to ignore.

Canadians expect to pay a fair price at the pumps and that is why, this week, I introduced a bill that provides for the appointment of the Director of the Competition Prosecution Service. The purpose of the bill is to provide the Competition Bureau all the resources it needs in order to arrest offenders as quickly as possible, particularly for collusion in the case of the price of gas.

Will this government support my bill?