Mr. Speaker, I am standing today at report stage on Bill S-7, which has the very unfortunate short title “the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act”. I stand in opposition to the main motion and in support of the NDP's proposed amendments to the bill.
I want to stress that I support the intent of the bill. No woman or child should be subject to any form of violence and certainly not to the forms of gender-based violence, such as forced marriage, polygamy, and underage marriage, the bill purports to address. Further, the fact of these forms of gender-based violence in Canadian society is not in dispute here, and neither is the fact that there are things we can do and ought to do to prevent and respond to the practices at issue.
However, the bill is not the appropriate response and needs at a minimum to be amended, because it threatens to aggravate, not help, existing circumstances and to further victimize or re-victimize those subject to the practices the bill purports to address.
The precautionary principle ought to apply here. The Conservative government has heard enough from enough knowledgeable people on the matter of the bill from those with experience and expertise in these matters to stop this here, to take a step back, and rethink its approach to this issue before it does more harm than good to people who need help.
Here are the main provisions of the bill. It amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to make polygamy grounds for inadmissibility to or removal from Canada of immigrants and permanent residents if there are reasonable grounds to believe that these individuals have practised, are practising, or may in future practise polygamy.
It amends the Civil Marriage Act to make free and enlightened consent to marriage a legal requirement and to require that any previous marriage be dissolved or declared null before a new marriage is contracted and to make 16 years of age the minimum legal age for marriage.
It amends the Criminal Code to clarify that it is an offence for an officiant to knowingly solemnize a marriage in contravention of federal law; to make it an offence to celebrate, aid or participate in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons being married is doing so against their will or is under the age of 16 years; to make it an offence to remove a child from Canada to marry a child against that child's will or if the child is under 16; to allow a judge to issue a peace bond for a period of up to two years if a person is suspected on reasonable grounds of preparing to force someone else to marry, to marry a child, or to remove a child from Canada for one of these purposes; and to address the issue of so-called honour killings to limit the defence of provocation to circumstances in which the victim engaged in conduct that would constitute an indictable offence under the Criminal Code that is punishable by five years or more in prison.
However, stakeholders and expert witnesses have testified before the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration that the bill is also likely to have many and serious unintended consequences. For example, the bill makes no provision to allow women who are conditional permanent residents to remain in Canada if their polygamist partner is deported.
There is no clear definition of polygamy, leading, likely, to confusion and potentially arbitrary decisions regarding deportation and inadmissibility and discrimination against nationals from certain countries.
UNICEF has expressed concern that the bill would criminalize minors who celebrate, aid, or participate in forced marriages, and UNICEF has recommended exemptions for children and young people from certain provisions in the bill.
Criminalization, in the context of family and social relations, may end up simply driving these practices underground.
In all of this, the bill falls in a long line of socially insensitive, ham-fisted and unsophisticated responses to complex social issues by the Conservative government.
In March 2012, for example, the Conservatives introduced new measures to crack down on marriage fraud, including a requirement for a sponsored spouse to live with the sponsor for two years or face deportation and possible criminal charges. Clearly, this measure leaves women reluctant to report abuse, because they fear losing permanent residency. Consequently, they are vulnerable to abuse.
In April 2014, the Conservative member for Mississauga South introduced a motion that purported to deal with forced marriages by banning marriages by proxy or by telephone, for example, from qualifying for spousal sponsorship. Distance marriages of this sort are largely conducted by refugees, so we have the consequence that this motion would serve to limit family reunification rather than limit forced marriages.
These are the kinds of sensitivities, nuances, understandings, et cetera, missing from the Conservative government's world view, and it is problematic.
Beyond that, and just as egregiously, the current Conservative government forgoes opportunities to even consider, much less heed, the advice of those who actually understand the complexity of these issues. For example, during the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration's study on strengthening the protection of women in our immigration system, most witnesses insisted that newcomers must be informed, in their language of origin, and before coming to Canada, of their rights in Canada and about the resources available to them in Canada. The committee recommended in its report to the House:
... that the Government of Canada expand pre-arrival orientation to ensure sponsored spouses receive information in a language they understand and to ensure that the topics covered include gender equality, women's rights, their legal rights, what constitutes abuse in Canada and how to seek help.
However, no funds were earmarked in the 2015 budget to implement this recommendation.
Here is another example of the government ignoring expertise and forgoing data and information and in so doing putting people at risk, sacrificing vulnerable people on the altar of political expediency. I call it political expediency quite deliberately, because the truth here is that so much of what is in the bill actually duplicates existing laws.
For example, the bill would amend the Civil Marriage Act to make free and enlightened consent legal requirements for marriage, but these requirements already exist as part of the civil code of Quebec and of common law in other provinces. The bill would limit the defence of provocation, ostensibly to exclude honour killings, but the courts have already ruled that the concept of honour and a culturally driven sense of what is an appropriate response does not count as provocation under the Criminal Code. The Canadian Criminal Code also already provides recourse that is relevant in most cases involving forced marriages, prior to and after marriage, as well as in cases of travelling with minors with the intent of forcing them to marry.
There is a broad range of existing Criminal Code provisions on everything from intimidation to forceful confinement to sexual assault that deal with these issues already.
So much of what we are talking about here today in this House stands as so fully representative of the four years of the 41st Parliament and the style and substance of the current Conservative government. It takes complex social issues, with real victims, and responds the only way it seems to know how, with its reflex to criminalization without regard to evidence, experience, expertise, or the potential of the unintended consequences of its reflex.
Witness its response to the over 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women: no inquiry, no search for intelligence or understanding, just criminalize, as though that helps victims, as though that will somehow prevent having more victims.
With so few days left in the 41st Parliament, this elected chamber is here considering a bill put forward by a chamber of unelected people. We have a Conservative government giving priority or ceding priority to an ill-considered, reactionary, and potentially harmful bill from the unelected Senate while at the same time it is shutting down debate in this elected chamber, as it has done 100 times already, as has been the fate of nearly 60 bills to date, on matters that elected representatives of this chamber want to debate.
In all, what a fitting way for the current government to close out the final days of this Parliament, and what an unfortunate way for Canada and Canadians.