Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to private member's Bill C-242, an act to amend the Criminal Code, inflicting torture.
I would like to begin by thanking the member for London North Centre for his advocacy on this very serious issue. We can all agree that torture and all forms of violence have no place in our society.
The bill before us seeks to amend the Criminal Code to create a new offence, specifically prohibiting any person from inflicting torture on any other person—that is, private torture—for the purpose of intimidating or coercing that person. This new offence would be punished by a maximum term of life imprisonment.
As I have said, we do condemn all acts of torture; however the government has issues with this particular bill. Briefly, this bill aims to prohibit torture committed by non-state actors. The new offence would be punished by a maximum term of life imprisonment.
In contrast, the existing crime of torture, found in section 269.1 of the Criminal Code, is restricted to state-actor torture, which is torture committed, instigated, consented to, or acquiesced in by a public official.
This bill aims to specifically denounce the worst kind of assaults, those that cause severe pain and suffering over a prolonged period of time. Victims of such attacks could include women victimized by the most abhorrent kinds of sexual assaults, and our hearts go out to anyone who has suffered these deplorable acts.
The amendments proposed by this bill, while put forward with good intention, are already addressed in our criminal justice system, and they create an inconsistency by proposing a punishment that is not consistent with how the Criminal Code already addresses torture; and it overlaps with the already existing crime of torture set out in section 269.1 of the Criminal Code.
The Criminal Code currently has numerous assault provisions. For example, there is the basic crime of assault in section 265 of the Criminal Code, which has a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. There is the crime of assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, which has a maximum punishment of 10 years' imprisonment. Bodily harm is defined in section 2 of the Criminal Code to mean any hurt or injury to a person that interferes with the health or comfort of the person and that is more than merely transient or trifling in nature.
There is also the crime of aggravated assault, which has a maximum punishment of 14 years' imprisonment. Aggravated assault is defined as wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering the life of the victim of the assault.
Also there are offences of sexual assault in the Criminal Code. For example, there is the crime of sexual assault in section 271 of the Criminal Code, which has a maximum punishment of 10 years' imprisonment. There is the crime of sexual assault with a weapon or threatening or causing bodily harm to the victim, which has a maximum punishment of 14 years' imprisonment. There is the crime of aggravated sexual assault found in section 273 of the Criminal Code, with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Aggravated sexual assault is defined as, when committing a sexual assault, wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering the life of the victim.
As well, there is the crime of state-sanctioned torture set out in section 269.1 of the Criminal Code, which has a maximum punishment of 14 years' imprisonment.
Furthermore, the Criminal Code contains sentencing principles that can apply to non-fatal violence inflicted on victims. For example, section 718.2 of the Criminal Code sets out a number of aggravating factors that must be considered by a judge before imposing a sentence in relation to any crime.
Among these aggravating factors are the following: evidence that the offender, in committing the offence, abused the offender's spouse or common-law partner; evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, considering their age and other personal circumstances, including their health and financial situation.
In other words, the Criminal Code already contains crimes that capture the kind of conduct that Bill C-242 wishes to specifically catch, perhaps most notably the crimes of aggravated assault and aggravated sexual assault. Existing sentencing provisions do already provide a range of aggravating factors that could apply in a case of private torture.
In effect, I believe there is no gap in the criminal law that requires the creation of a new offence of private torture to provide for a remedy. The proposed torture offence in Bill C-242 is therefore not necessary. It is also useful to know that these existing laws can and do work effectively to address these types of cases.
Next let me address the issue that this would create an inconsistency in punishment. The proposed penalty for this new offence of private torture would be a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. I start with a basic proposition that similar crimes should be dealt with similarly.
As I have previously outlined, the crimes of aggravated assault and torture in sections 268 and 269.1 of the Criminal Code have a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment. Even if the crime of aggravated assault is omitted from this equation, leaving us to compare just the offence of torture in section 269.1 of the Criminal Code to the offence proposed in the bill, the stark contrast in punishment remains: maximum punishment of 14 years in relation to section 269.1 versus life imprisonment in relation to the proposed offence.
Creating an offence of private torture could have the unintended effect of seriously weakening Canada's contribution to the focused global effort to prevent torture under the convention against torture. This could cause confusion as to what Canada considers to be its international obligation when it comes to the effective prevention of torture. This is because, as was indicated earlier in debate, there would be two definitions of torture, one of which, in the private torture offence, would be narrower than the internationally accepted definition of torture set out in section 269.1.
States that are reluctant to abide by the obligations set out in the convention could argue that they need not accept the internationally accepted definition of torture because Canada has enacted a private torture offence that contains a narrower definition.
It could be argued that this inconsistency could best be resolved by increasing the maximum punishment for torture in section 269.1 to life imprisonment. However, such a change would result in yet another inconsistency being created. The maximum punishment for aggravated assault would no longer be the same as that for torture under section 269.1 of the Criminal Code. It would remain at 14 years' imprisonment.
The result would be that someone who maims another by, for example, cutting off his or her hand, would be seen as less blameworthy than the state official or private individual who whips someone repeatedly.
In my view, it is far better to have the norm for maximum punishment for the most violent forms of non-fatal violence to be 14 years' imprisonment rather than to erode this norm by seeking higher maximum punishments for such conduct.
Let me address the final effect that the proposed offence would have on the Criminal Code. It would not complement the offence of state-sanctioned torture found in section 269.1. Instead, it largely overlaps with section 269.1 and thereby undercuts the exclusive jurisdiction of section 269.1 to address state-sanctioned torture. This is because it is defined so broadly that it captures anyone who commits the conduct defined as torture by the offence, whether private citizen or public official. Put another way, it is not restricted to torture committed by a private citizen.
The effect is that, if a case should arise where a public official commits torture as defined by the bill, a prosecutor would have the choice of prosecuting either under the new offence or the current offence found in section 269.1. Such a result is possible, especially if the prosecutor wishes to obtain the most severe sentence possible. He or she could avoid the 14-year maximum punishment for torture under section 269.1 of the Criminal Code by prosecuting under the proposed offence, which has a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
In my view, creating this crime would likely have immense symbolic value to some of the most vulnerable persons in our society. However, symbolism alone is not enough reason to add yet another offence to the vast array of offences and sentencing procedures that already catch the most harmful kinds of assault and that already speak to Canada's ongoing efforts to protect the most vulnerable among us.
For these reasons, I am opposed to the bill, and I call on other members of the House to also oppose it.
I do wish to say in closing that the goal of the bill and the intent of the member is to advocate against violence, and that is a goal which we can all support.