Mr. Speaker, with the passage of Bill S-7, Canada would join the growing list of like-minded countries criminalizing forced marriage.
Moreover, the proposed maximum sentence of imprisonment of five years lies within the average range of penalties of the countries I outlined just prior to question period. Some have claimed that these offences have no impact because there have been few convictions. I completely disagree, and for several reasons.
First, as the RCMP pointed out in their written submission to the citizenship and immigration committee, criminal law is not only about punishing violations of agreed-upon social codes of conduct, but it also serves to clearly establish the limits of acceptable social conduct. The criminalization of forced marriage has a symbolic function. It sends out a public message that forced marriage is socially unacceptable.
Second, a specific criminal offence of forced marriage can empower victims by allowing them to clearly articulate that it is a crime to force them to marry against their will. In fact, this very point was raised in the testimony of Lee Marsh, one of the committee's witnesses and a victim of a forced marriage who indicated that if she had known forced marriage was against the law, she might have been able to refuse the marriage.
Third, enhancing victims' awareness of their rights can lead to an increase in reporting, both to the police and to victim service agencies. For example, a Copenhagen-based organization reported a surge in victims coming forward to seek help after Denmark criminalized forced marriage. The threat of criminal sanction coupled with awareness-raising and prevention measures, can help reduce these practices rather than drive them underground, as some would claim.
Fourth, forced marriage constitutes a distinct violation of the human rights of the victim that is of sufficient gravity that it should be considered as a crime separate from existing criminal offences. The proposed new offence in Bill S-7 focuses on the point where the harm of forcing someone into an unwanted marriage crystalizes, namely the marriage ceremony itself. It addresses the unique harm associated with community endorsement of the creation of an unwanted legal bond within which sexual assaults are expected to occur. This new offence is also required because forced marriage is not a subcategory of existing general offences.
Fifth, a specific criminal offence will permit victims and the authorities to prevent the forced marriage ceremony from taking place by using the preventive aspect of the criminal law. Bill S-7 is structured precisely so that victims can benefit from the specific forced and underage peace bonds to prevent the ceremony from taking place. Moreover, Bill S-7 provides law enforcement with the tools to stop the removal of a child from Canada for the purposes of a forced or underage marriage abroad.
Finally, the criminalization of forced marriage serves to dissuade and deter people from violating the fundamental rights of the victim. As many families who force their children into unwanted marriages may otherwise be law-abiding, the very existence of these specific offences may be sufficient to dissuade them from proceeding with the forced or underage marriage ceremony.
I would like to end my speech today by saying a few words about the proposed amendments to the defence of provocation in the Criminal Code. The defence of provocation applies only in cases where murder is actually proven. If successful, it results in a verdict of manslaughter, which has no mandatory minimum sentence, instead of murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison and strict parole ineligibility rules.
Currently, the defence will be successful where the murder was committed in response to a wrongful act or insult from the victim that would be sufficient to deprive an ordinary person of the power of self-control, and where the accused acted suddenly before there was time for his passion to cool.
Provocation can be established even where the victim's conduct was perfectly legal or lawful. The defence is, in fact, raised in cases of spousal homicide against women where the alleged provocation was lawful conduct such as leaving a relationship or insulting the perpetrator's virility.
Historically, the provocation defence was the original honour defence in our common law tradition. It was limited to certain categories of conduct related to a man defending his honour, such as when finding another man committing adultery with his wife, which was viewed as the highest invasion of property. The defence was correctly criticized for decades for excusing male violence against women on the basis of outdated notions that have no place in contemporary Canadian society.
The proposed amendment in Bill S-7 would limit provocation so that it could only be raised where the alleged provoking conduct by the victim would amount to an offence punishable by five years in prison, or more.
In my view, it is entirely appropriate that Canada amend a defence that originates from a time when women were legal property of their husbands and when defence gave men latitude to kill in response to conduct that insulted their personal sense of honour.
Our Conservative government is taking steps to strengthen our laws to help 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 practice.
I urge my colleagues to support the bill and align Canada with like-minded countries that are grappling with similar forms of violence against women and girls.