Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have the opportunity to address this important piece of legislation in the House today on behalf of my constituents in the great riding of Wetaskiwin. I always stand never knowing for sure if this is going to be the last time I speak as a member of Parliament for Wetaskiwin, but I certainly take every opportunity to recognize the great people that I have been fortunate to represent for the last 10 years. The ridings are changing in Alberta and half of my riding will be lost, so it is always nice to acknowledge the folks who sent me here on their behalf. Many of them communicate to me their strong desires on certain issues. I have no doubt where the people in my constituency stand on this issue.
I am pleased to have the opportunity today to speak about Bill S-7, which is an act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code and to make consequential amendments to a few other pieces of legislation. Bill S-7 aims to ensure that early and forced marriage and other harmful cultural practices, such as polygamist marriages and so-called “honour-based” violence, do not occur on Canadian soil. It would do so by amending the Civil Marriage Act, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and, of course, the Criminal Code.
Today I would like to speak to the proposed amendment to the Criminal Code, the defence of provocation. The provocation defence applies only to a murder charge and, when successful, reduces a murder charge down to manslaughter, thereby giving rise to wide judicial discretion in sentencing and, in most cases, significantly lower sentences than if the person had been convicted of murder. The proposed amendment would limit the defence so that it would only apply where a person is killed in response to provoking conduct by the victim that was objectively serious and contrary to the norms and behaviours set down for all of society.
More specifically, the provocation by the victim would have to amount to a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of at least five years. The defence would continue to be available where a person loses control and kills someone suddenly upon finding that person assaulting or abusing a family member, or committing any number of other serious criminal offences. The amendment is not only intended to stop the defence from being raised in honour killings but also from being raised in spousal killing situations where it is still sometimes successful. There are situations where people who kill will often claim to have done so in response to some lawful, albeit insulting, conduct by the victim.
This reform responds to two decades of criticism that the defence of provocation in these cases operates to excuse male violence against women and to reaffirm men's beliefs that they are entitled to possess and control women regardless of what those women want. This, of course, is a very similar dynamic to what is seen in honour killing cases, where men, whether it be a father, a husband or brother, but sometimes also women, seek to kill women or girls in their families when they make their own choices about how to behave that are in conflict with the wishes of other family members.
Many of the commentators who testified before the committee said that the proposed provocation reforms were unnecessary because the courts have already made clear that provocation is not available in an honour killing context. This has been the case argued by some across the floor. Even if the courts are in the process of narrowing the scope of the provocation defence, it begs the question: Why are the courts, rather than Parliament, addressing problems with the law? It is Parliament's job and the job of every person in the chamber to make law and correct legal problems.
Bill S-7 is Parliament's opportunity to change the law, to say that murder is not less serious just because the victim offended the killer in the moments before the killing. Critics of this proposal also ignore the fact that our government has said on many occasions that this proposed reform is also meant to address spousal killings that are not characterized as honour killings. Many who claim the defence of provocation are men who have killed their current or former partners because the relationship ended, because there was infidelity or because of verbal insults about sexual performance, and so on.
It is true that these claims are becoming less and less successful in Canadian courts, but, nonetheless, such claims do sometimes succeed. None of the witnesses who criticized this amendment addressed the fact that men in Canada sometimes still benefit from the provocation defence when they kill their current or former partners. Instead, the critics talked only about cases in which provocation claims failed, where the circumstances were characterized as honour killings.
They seem to agree that the victims of honour killings must be treated as murder victims and those who kill them as murderers, yet they do not appear to be concerned that victims of domestic killings that are not honour killings may receive a different quality of justice and are instead sometimes treated as victims of the lesser crime of manslaughter. These killers are back on the streets within a few years in some cases.
Our government believes all persons who kill their partners in response to lawful, albeit insulting, behaviour should be convicted of murder. We also believe that it is Parliament's job to make this happen by changing the law to accord with this value. It is not enough to sit back and hope that the courts will do the right thing on a case-by-case basis. In any event, it is simply not true that the courts have ruled definitively in this area.
The British Columbia Court of Appeal, in the case of R. v. Nehar, 2004 BCCA, actually found that the cultural background of the accused was relevant to his provocation claim. This case remains binding authority in British Columbia, which means that cultural claims can be accepted in the context of a provocation defence.
Many commentators have suggested that the Ontario Court of Appeal decision in the case of Humaid definitely rules out the provocation defence in honour killing cases. In that ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal made clear that the defence failed because the Crown proved that the killing was pre-meditated, so it was not of a sudden nature and, therefore, not provoked. Having found that the appeal was resolved on the grounds that the Crown proved pre-meditation, the court said it did not have to resolve the issue about whether the accused's cultural beliefs were relevant to provocation. The court discussed what the considerations would be in resolving this issue, but expressly stated:
The resolution of this difficult issue awaits a case in which it must be resolved.
That is from the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Humaid 2006, on the order paper 1507, paragraph 94.
Where does all of this leave us? It is wishful thinking and legally inaccurate to state that provocation cannot, as a matter of law, be raised by an accused who is alleged to have killed in an honour killing context. It is true that the provocation claims in honour killing cases are likely to be rejected by judges and juries, but the critics are incorrect when they suggest that the defence cannot even be raised or considered. We have already seen that it has been considered in British Columbia, and court is awaiting a case where it can be considered in Ontario.
These claims will be made again, and they will produce more appeals, which will cost the justice system more time and energy, and which will bring more pain to the families of the victims, who have to face longer trials and appeals. We, as legislators, can stop that from happening by passing Bill S-7 as soon as possible and by declaring that no one is entitled to leniency for intentionally killing another because of any type of insult that is otherwise lawful.
Some critics are concerned about unintended consequences of limiting the provocation defence. Scenarios involving racial slurs were mentioned on a few occasions. In most such cases, both parties are drunk, both parties are insulting each other, and in many cases, both parties are also assaulting or threatening each other, which is unlawful conduct in and of itself. No cases were identified wherein a person who was minding his or her own business and was aggressively verbally assaulted with racial insults was thus provoked to kill. This is a very unlikely occurrence.
There are risks of retaining provocation for racial insults. A 2013 case from Ontario involved a successful provocation defence by a man who brutally killed his wife in the context of a marriage breakdown. The accused alleged that his wife made a racial slur, the contents of which were not disclosed in the court's reasons. The accused was, therefore, convicted of manslaughter, a lesser charge, not murder, and sentenced to serve only four years and four months' imprisonment, despite the sentencing judge finding the provocation to be of little mitigating value.
The danger of retaining provocation in order to show leniency to those who are racially insulted is that it can also apply in the context of a relationship breakdown, where people offer up insults in order to hurt each other emotionally with some regularity.
There are other safeguards built into our criminal justice system that should not be forgotten in the event that there is an unforeseen but genuinely sympathetic set of circumstances for which the provocation defence would no longer apply. For example, the Crown could find that it is not in the public interest to prosecute that person for murder and can accept a guilty plea to manslaughter without any need for the accused to raise the provocation defence.
In closing, to better protect women and girls in this country, the time has come for Canada to bring the law of provocation out of the 17th century and into conformity with our modern values as other like-minded nations have done. I hope that all members will support this proposal and all other elements of Bill S-7. It is time we moved forward with this very valuable legislation. We continue to stand up for victims, to put victims' needs first, and to protect those who are most vulnerable in our society, namely women and small girls.