Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House today to speak and bring the perspective of the constituents of Vancouver Kingsway to this important debate.
I want to start by talking about something that I think all members of the House agree on and that comprises the fundamental aims of the bill. I support the intent of the bill, which is the fight against polygamy, forced marriages, and underage marriages. I, like every member in the House, believe strongly that all violence against women and children is unacceptable and that much remains to be done to prevent and combat these crimes. No woman, or anybody really, should be subject to gender-based violence, including the practices of forced marriage and underage marriage.
I have been in the House almost seven years and, at our best, we as members of Parliament come together and have respectful dialogues about different perspectives that can be brought to bear on some of these complicated problems. I have also been in the House when I think the worst of debate has occurred, which is when we engage in ad hominem attacks and when we substitute base accusations for careful and reasoned analysis.
We have seen examples of that when someone stands in the House and accuses members of standing with the pornographers if they do not support legislation, or of siding with the terrorists if they do not support legislation. I have heard in the House already today the member for Vancouver South suggesting that those who may have some problems with the way the bill is framed somehow have their commitment to standing up for the rights of women and children called into question. I think that is disrespectful and regrettable.
This is a bill that, while well-intentioned and, broadly speaking, aimed at something that all members of the House share as a laudable goal to be dealt with by the House, has some significant and some profoundly important problems. That is why we stand in the House today to voice those problems with the bill, as a good opposition ought to do in a British parliamentary system.
I also point out that the New Democrats, the Liberal Party, and the Green Party at committee tried to improve the bill and address the deficiencies and make the bill stronger and better and submitted some 11 different amendments that would have allowed every member in the House to stand up and support the bill unanimously. As is typical and all too common and regrettable with the Conservative government, it rejected all 11 of those amendments and, even worse, something we are seeing all too often with the government, without any real honest consideration of those amendments. That is very unfortunate.
I will start with one of the main problems with the bill and that is the title: zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act. Now, I am trained as a lawyer and I started reading law in 1985. I am very familiar with the titles of legislation, and the typical practice in Canadian legal history is that bills are titled in a neutral way to capture the essence of the bill. What I have seen for the first time in the history of Canada is that the government began early in its term to politicize and sensationalize the titles of bills. Frankly, that is also extremely regrettable. It may be politically beneficial for the moment for that particular party, but it does a disservice to the profound importance and respect we all should have for legislation in this country.
As is said, words matter, and the title “zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act” is problematic. We have heard from witness after witness as to why that is the case. There are two main reasons why that title ought not to be in the bill. First of all, it is inaccurate. The practice of polygamy, for instance, which is one of the aims of the bill, is not a cultural practice. In fact, it is actually in some cases, a religious practice.
Where I come from in British Columbia, we have had ongoing legal disputes with a group of people who live in Bountiful. They are a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church who believe that polygamy is religiously ordained and religiously permissible. That is not a cultural practice; it is a religious practice. However, we do not name this bill “zero tolerance for barbaric religious practices act”, and it would be offensive if we did so.
The second reason that this title is offensive is that several groups, particularly Muslims in this country right now, have expressed a certain sensitivity to legislative, political, cultural, and social pressure being brought to bear on them and feel that this title actually singles them out, which makes them uncomfortable.
New Democrats pointed that out to the government, asking the Conservatives to change the title by dropping the word “cultural”. What if the bill said “zero tolerance for barbaric practices act”? When everybody in this House could agree, the government refused. It refused to drop the word “cultural”.
I hear members talk about the opposition simply not being happy with a couple of cosmetic changes to the bill. Really, that is inaccurate. We were trying to improve the bill both in accuracy and in social acceptability, and the government chose to reject that.
The bill could also have serious unintended consequences, including increasing social pressure against victims of forced marriage and deporting victims of polygamy. We are also concerned that the criminalization of everybody involved in the solemnization of a polygamous marriage or a marriage that involves someone who is a minor risks having this legislation achieve the exact opposite of its aim. This is the famous law of unintended consequences.
Everybody in this House—including the government, I think—is well intentioned and wants to try to put a stop to these practices. Witness after witness at committee said that if we criminalize an entire family and compel children or family members to accuse their parents or family members of a criminal act, maybe they will be less likely to complain about the event, and we may end up driving these practices even further underground, which would make these practices more prevalent, not less prevalent.
We believe that instead of introducing a flawed bill that does not really get to the root of the problem, the government should commit to widespread and meaningful action with community groups and experts so that the real issues that these practices engender are addressed. I would argue for a multi-faceted approach to address such things as safe and affordable housing, counselling, and help for the often traumatized families who are trying to navigate complicated justice and immigration systems.
I want to read a couple of quotes that were made at committee, because they really get to the essence of the problem.
Lawyer Chantal Desloges pointed out the absence of a clear definition of polygamy. She said:
Practising polygamy is not really defined. The bill refers us to the Criminal Code definition of polygamy, but if you read the Criminal Code definition, that also is not very well defined and leaves a huge grey zone for interpretation as to what it means to be practising polygamy in Canada.
We know that polygamy is actually tied up in the legal system now, and there are charter and constitutional issues. This is an issue with the bill that I think would need more work.
Dr. Hannana Siddiqui give an excellent description of the problem with criminalization. She said:
The problem for us was that we worked directly with survivors and victims. A lot of them are girls and young women who say to us, “I do want protection from the police, but I don't want to prosecute my parents or my family. I don't want to see them go to jail.” They clearly said that if they went to the police and they were going to prosecute, then they would withdraw their charges; they would not cooperate or would not even go to the police in the first place.
Victims said that if we criminalize it, it might mean that their family ties would be broken forever. This is another unintended consequence I was referring to.
We already have laws across this country that set a minimum age for marriage in this country. It is actually not necessary for the federal government to set a minimum age of marriage, because every province has a minimum age. It varies from province to province, I understand, but that is another criticism of the bill that I have seen: it is redundant.
Also, forced marriage could be caught by any one of a number of sections of the Criminal Code already, including transferring a minor across provincial borders, assault, uttering threats, coercion, intimidation, et cetera. Arguably, even the sections of the bill that go to forced marriage are unnecessary.
I will give my colleagues on the government side of the House credit for wanting to address some serious issues, but I think that by working together, all members of this House can make the bill better. By co-operating, we can pass legislation that everybody in this House can support. That would be the aim of every parliamentarian, but that is not the case with the bill before us.