moved that Bill C-242, an act to amend the Criminal Code (inflicting torture), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I stand today to formerly address my private member's bill, Bill C-242, an act to amend the Criminal Code (inflicting torture).
After being drawn ninth in the private members' bill lottery, I felt a responsibility to take advantage of this good fortune by putting forward a meaningful reform. I might have sought for a particular cause to be given special recognition or to have a forgotten historical event commemorated. Such initiatives certainly have their place, yet I felt the need to go in a different direction.
Bill C-242 is a human rights bill that aims to add a torture offence to the Canadian Criminal Code.
Article 5 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
While a torture offence exists in section 269.1 of the Criminal Code, it only applies to acts perpetrated by state officials. Equivalent acts that would otherwise be defined as torture but committed by private individuals acting outside of state authority are instead typically considered to constitute the offence of aggravated assault under section 268. The proposed reform will pertain to those acts of brutality that may be life-threatening and far exceed instances of aggravated assault, a charge that can apply to serious and trivial acts of violence. Section 268 is therefore insufficient.
Torturers aim to rob individuals of their dignity through the intentional and repeated infliction of severe pain, suffering and humiliation over a prolonged period of time for the purpose of intimidation and coercion. These actions have no place in a free, open and democratic society such as Canada.
For critics, the current charges available in the Criminal Code have been said to be sufficient. They believe that existing laws can adequately be applied when torture offences take place. I have already mentioned aggravated assault. Other possibilities include assault, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, sexual assault offences, and aggravated sexual assault.
Judges indeed may have the ability to impose sentences that account for aggravating factors when the offence has had a particularly difficult impact on the victim. I understand this argument, but do not accept it. True, it does not deny that torture committed in the private realm can happen, yet it also implies the problem is exaggerated and that existing laws are good enough. Tell that to the victims of torture.
Existing offences are in place and can be used to prosecute perpetrators, I agree. However, they are inadequate because they do not acknowledge that torture has been endured, unspeakable acts, heinous acts, acts so terrible that everyone in the House would be left shaking their heads in absolute disgust. A gap in our Criminal Code therefore exists. Ignoring it does a disservice to the victims of torture.
I will only point to a few examples, and there are many others, that have occurred in recent years. The details while difficult are important.
In 2006, a Calgary man was made to take off his clothes and had his hands and feet tied with cables. He was then left to hang from ceiling joists while his torturers punched, cut and whipped him with a belt before spraying him with butane. This happened over a period of days. Two individuals were found responsible. The first was a youth who could not be sentenced in adult court. The second pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon, and a mere two years was given in what amounted to an example of torture.
In 2008, a Brampton man had his toe cut off, was beaten with a bat, cut multiple times with salt rubbed in his wounds, and had a plastic bag put over his head. This took place over several hours and seemed to have been done with the intent of obtaining information about a theft. The individual who carried out the action was found guilty of aggravated assault and forcible confinement and given a sentence of less than 10 years. The more appropriate choice would have been torture, because that is what took place. In fact, the judge used the word “torture” to describe the victim's experience.
In 2010, Dustin Paxton beat, starved, burned, and cut off the lip and part of the tongue of his victim in a well-known Alberta case. This seemed to have happened for perhaps as long as two years. While a dangerous offender designation was assigned by the courts, Paxton was charged with aggravated and sexual assault even though torture more properly captures what happened.
I have one final example. I received a call to my constituency office recently from a woman who told me that she lived through some of the most despicable actions that anyone could imagine. Her childhood was so terrible that she felt the need to flee to the United States, where she now lives. This was necessary in order to gain the sense of security that she so desperately needed. In repeated acts of torture, this young woman was tied up, hung upside down, and had objects, such as a cattle prod, used against her.
Though extremely hard to hear, the reality that our society requires a charge of torture to be put into the Criminal Code is evident from the cases I have described throughout.
The need to call crimes what they are is not simply an academic matter. In order for victims to heal, their suffering must be acknowledged. Indeed, this fact underlined the truth and reconciliation process on residential schools, and is a basic human rights principle.
Using terms such as “aggravated assault”, which can be applied to the above cases just as easily as it can be to a fist fight, does not adequately speak to the grave human rights abuses that have been committed.
This is why the bill proposes a sentence of up to life imprisonment for those who carry out torture. Some will criticize the bill on this basis because the existing state torture law only offers a maximum of 14 years. It is true that this is inconsistent and I believe strongly that a much stiffer sentence for acts of state torture is certainly warranted.
However, rather than aiming to do everything and, hence, nothing, I have placed my focus on a gap that has been almost completely disregarded by Canadian legislators until this point. I did so after consulting with victims, their families, justice department officials, and civil society organizations.
The legislation was drafted by expert bureaucrats trained in the law. I value the support they have provided and the passion they show for their work every day.
The same line of reasoning applies to the issue of aggravated assault. The maximum penalty for aggravated assault is 14 years. This is appropriate, I admit, for most violations. However, when torture more properly describes the offence, a much harsher penalty is warranted.
Furthermore, it is true that torture from an international legal perspective has traditionally been understood as a state crime. I respect this, but add that the definition of torture has shifted. The Committee Against Torture, for example, which is responsible for monitoring the UN torture convention of which Canada is a signatory, has said that torture in the private sphere qualifies as torture.
This view has been accepted by other states. The proposed legislation shares much in common with existing torture laws in Australia and France. Both countries, extremely important allies, have strong torture laws that apply to state and private actors. Canada should follow suit. Recognizing such a change would acknowledge the ordeal experienced by those who have suffered torture and punish torturers accordingly.
Cases of extreme violence and inhumane conduct have happened in Canada and could take place again. Canadians deserve a government that will stand up for their rights and safety at all times. Previous governments had an opportunity to make this change but failed to do. It is time to act and make positive change happen.
This is not perfect legislation, and I am not sure any piece of legislation is ever perfect. However, I want to assure all my colleagues in the House that I am open to any potential amendments that could be examined by the justice committee. This includes lowering the term of punishment and any other concerns that may exist. It would be a sincere shame to have this important bill defeated because of concerns related to technicalities which could easily be altered.
I ask my colleagues, before making a final decision, that they consider these important factors. If they believe that human rights matter, if they believe that torture has no place in our society because it robs individuals of their humanity and dignity, if they believe that the way to ensure public safety is not by building more jails or through the politics of division and fear but through enshrining human rights principles into the law, then I urge them to vote in favour of Bill C-242 for all of these reasons, and allow it to go to committee where it can be further examined.
This bill is not about me and has never been about me. Indeed, this is the most important point I want to make today. I dedicate this bill to all victims of torture. Their voice matters. I have listened to them. Their suffering cannot go unacknowledged any longer, and I will continue to fight for them.