Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in the House to speak to Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.
Our government is committed to protecting young women and girls from early and forced marriage and other barbaric practices. During my speech, I would like to highlight the provisions of the bill that are designed to protect Canadian children from early and forced marriage.
Although we lack national statistics on the incidence of early and forced marriage among children in Canada because these practices are kept hidden, there are indications that children in Canada are in fact subjected to the barbaric practices of early and forced marriage. According to the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario's study on forced marriages, in Ontario between 2010 and 2012, 10% of the 219 victims identified were between the ages of 12 and 15 and 25% were between the ages of 16 and 18.
International studies have shown that girls are predominantly the victims of a child marriage, increasing their risk of being exposed to violence and complications in childbirth and creating a significant barrier to achieving gender equality, as they are regularly forced to disrupt or abandon their education.
A number of witnesses testified during the committee's hearings about the very disturbing cases of girls in Canada who had been forced to marry or who had been taken abroad to get married, despite their young age or lack of consent. In some instances, young girls are tricked into leaving the country, supposedly to attend a wedding ceremony of a relative, only to discover that the wedding is their own.
While there are currently some legislative tools available in Canada to prevent and respond to underage and forced marriages of children, there are some significant gaps in the law that Bill S-7 aims to fill.
First, there is currently no national minimum age below which children are not legally capable of consenting to marriage. In Canada, the free age of marriage—the age at which children become adults and can give consent to marry on their own, with no additional requirements—is 18 or 19 years of age, depending on the province or territory where the marriage takes place.
All provincial and territorial marriage acts set out additional requirements for minors to marry, such as parental consent, a court order, or proof of pregnancy. Under the Constitution, setting the absolute minimum age for marriage is a matter of federal jurisdiction. However, apart from federal legislation that sets the minimum age of 16 years for marriages in Quebec, the minimum age elsewhere in Canada is set out in the common law, or court decisions. This old common law sets the minimum age at 14 for boys and 12 for girls. There is no clear minimum age across the country setting the absolute minimum age.
Bill S-7 would enact changes to the Civil Marriage Act that would effectively prevent marriage of any person under the age of 16 from occurring anywhere in Canada. This will close the current legislative gap and set a national minimum age for marriage across Canada that would be consistent with countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Further, by making all children under age 16 legally incapable of consenting to marriage, Bill S-7 would also ensure that if a child is taken out of Canada and married in a country where such child marriages are legal, upon the child's return to Canada, the underage marriage would be voidable because the child lacked the legal capacity to marry.
Bill S-7 would amend the Criminal Code to provide criminal protections against underage and forced marriages. The new provisions are directed to the public sanctioning of an underage and forced marriage ceremony, which creates an unwanted and harmful legal bond within which sexual offences are expected to occur.
The two new offences would criminalize conduct related to knowingly officiating or knowingly and actively participating in a marriage ceremony in which one or both of the spouses is either under the age of 16 or marrying against their will. While a person will not be prosecuted for just being a guest at the wedding, those who conduct the marriage ceremony and those, including family members, who actively engage in conduct directed at facilitating the underage or forced marriage ceremony with full knowledge that one party is underage or marrying against his or her will may be criminally liable.
In keeping with the objective of the criminal law to deter people from committing crimes, these new provisions send a clear and important message about the need for all Canadians to reject the misguided belief that any underage or forced marriage can be in a child's best interest.
As well, the bill would make it an offence to remove a child from Canada for the purposes of a forced or underage marriage ceremony outside of Canada. It would build upon an existing provision in the Criminal Code that makes it an offence to remove a child for the purposes of committing certain crimes, such as child sexual offences and female genital mutilation.
Bill S-7 would add the new offences related to officiating or actively participating in an underage or forced marriage ceremony to the list of offences in the existing provision. This would effectively punish those who attempt to, or who do, remove a child from Canada for the purposes of an underage or forced marriage ceremony abroad. It should also serve to prevent these removals from taking place at all because it would allow officials to intervene before the child left the country.
Without this amendment, the current law requires authorities to have evidence that a sexual offence is intended to be committed abroad following the marriage. With the amendment, evidence of an intended forced or early marriage will enable preventive measures to be taken.
I want to take this opportunity to respond to comments that I have heard many times about how child victims of forced marriages are reluctant to contact the authorities prior to the marriage because they do not want their parents or other relatives prosecuted.
The Criminal Code amendments in Bill S-7 that I have just noted would provide the foundation for a very important prevention measure. Bill S-7 would provide for specific forced or underage marriage peace bonds, which would provide courts with the power to impose conditions on an individual when there were reasonable grounds to fear that a forced or underage marriage would otherwise occur.
For example, an order under the new peace bond provision could prevent a victim from being taken out of Canada or require the surrender of a passport. These peace bonds are available to victims who want protection but do not want their parents or other relatives prosecuted. People subjected to peace bonds are not charged with a criminal offence unless they breach the conditions of the order.
It is important to point out that a third party, such as a social worker, a police officer or a relative, can intervene to request the peace bond on the child's behalf.
It is important that everyone know and understand that this conduct is illegal because it is the most vulnerable in our society, our children, who suffer serious harm when forced, usually by their family members, to marry underage or against their will. How can we not do everything possible to stop this?
Our government is taking steps to strengthen the laws to help to ensure that no young girl or woman in Canada becomes a victim of early or forced marriage, polygamy, so-called honour-based violence or any other form of harmful cultural practices.
I am proud to support the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act. I urge all of my colleagues to do the same.