Madam Speaker, it is an honour to rise to speak to Bill C-51 today. I want to begin by, I suppose apologizing to my colleague from Mount Royal, who is the excellent chair of the justice and human rights committee, and who runs it in a fashion that is non-partisan, to his credit. However, from the perspective of an opposition member, it is passing strange that amendments from our side are so rarely taken up by any committee in this place.
On Bill C-58, the bill that the government calls the “access to information bill”, which I call the “denying access to information bill”, I brought forth 20 amendments, and each and every one was rejected. In this case, the chronology is as my friend suggested, and is correctly stated, but each of the amendments from the opposition was defeated. I think each of the amendments from the Liberals was accepted on this particular bill. That is the way it works in committees. I think that Canadians should know that. I find it disappointing.
On the merits of it, and in the collegiality of how the committee proceeds, I am grateful to the member for Mount Royal for the way he runs this committee. It is exemplary, and I salute him for it.
This is a non-partisan issue, and if I got off on the wrong footing by suggesting anything to the contrary, I owe this place an apology. Reform of the criminal law for all Canadians cannot be partisan. We have to get it right. We have to get the balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of victims correct, because the law is constantly evolving, as technology, for example, is constantly evolving. I will have more to say about that in a moment, in respect to sexual assault provisions.
It is to the government's credit that it is taking a number of sections of this very long Criminal Code and trying to update it, in light of what the courts have done and in light of where society is going. That is as it should be.
The NDP wants to say at the outset of this debate that New Democrats are entirely in support of the bill and will be voting for it without hesitation.
Therefore, I want to say a few things for those who might be listening about the nature of the bill. Some have called it an omnibus bill. I think one of the Conservative speakers, in June, when it was in second reading, termed it that. It is not that way. It is a comprehensive reform initiative to do four types of things.
The first is to clarify the laws on sexual assault, because there has been a lot of Supreme Court jurisprudence that requires us to restate the law to make sure we are keeping up with the times. Second, the bill would remove or amend provisions that have been found unconstitutional by the courts. That obviously has to be done. Third, a number of obsolete or duplicative offences would be removed. Fourth, there is another bill that would be amended, the Department of Justice Act, which would create a new statutory duty for the Minister of Justice to table a charter statement for every government bill.
The fourth issue is laudatory, but quite ineffective. The fact that the government tables a few sentences about why a finance initiative is consistent with the charter seems to me to be much ado about nothing. I am not sure it is of any relevance in a court of law. I think the House can assume, without having a statement, that government bills will in fact be consistent with the charter. We hardly need a statement to do that. Indeed, the charter statements that the Minister of Justice has been releasing to date add very little, in my judgment, to the issues before the House. However, I suppose one can never fault too much information, even information that is of dubious utility.
I want to start with the most significant number of amendments to the bill, which is on sexual assault. However, before doing that, I want to put it in the context of an excellent summary of the bill that was provided in the Canadian Bar Association's journal, National, that was done by Omar Ha-Redeye in the fall, just a few weeks ago. It is quite amusing how the author describes the bill. He says:
The federal government is finally doing some housekeeping of the Criminal Code with Bill C-51. It may find some hidden cobwebs--and according to some, there may even be monsters under the bed.
The Criminal Code is a place where old, obsolete, or even unconstitutional laws languish in purgatory. Most governments have been content to simply ignore these outdated provisions, knowing that most would never actually be used. The result is a long, rambling and sometimes unnecessarily confusing statute.
Amen to that.
Sometimes the code is sufficiently complicated to confuse even the judges. This is where I pause to talk about poor Mr. Justice Denny Thomas of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench, who a few years ago convicted a gentleman named Travis Vader of second degree murder. He relied on section 230 of the Criminal Code, which had a provision called “culpable homicide” that was introduced way back in 1892.
Unfortunately, the judge was not made aware of the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada had previously repealed a part of that provision in a 1987 decision. Then it had ruled, in another decision, that the section was contrary to the charter and could not be saved under section 1. The judge had convicted this individual when the provision “allowed for a conviction of murder without the requirement for proof of subjective foresight of the mental elements for moral blameworthiness”. There it was, sitting and gathering dust, in section 230 in the Criminal Code. They had to do the whole trial again, at unknowing cost, both psychological and financial, to the system of justice in the province of Alberta, and brought the Criminal Code, frankly into disrepute as a consequence.
One has to salute the government for its efforts to bring it up to date and sweep away these cobwebs, as the author so correctly said.
There are provisions in here that are simply obsolete for other reasons, such as those relating to the prohibition on duels, which the House will be pleased to know is no longer a problem under the Criminal Code, pretending to practice witchcraft, offences dealing with trading stamps, archaic sections that no longer serve the needs of contemporary Canada. Again, the government is correctly trying to remove these cobwebs from our criminal law.
That takes me to the main event, if I can call it that—and there are a number of others that I will come to—which are the sections dealing with reform of the sexual assault provisions of the code. The minister talked about making it, “more compassionate towards complainants in sexual assault matters.”
Many of the sections in the code address changes that the courts have made, using the charter, to address problems they saw with these provisions. These sections expand the code's rape shield provisions to expressly include communications for a sexual purpose or of a sexual nature. The rape shield provisions that were introduced after the Seaboyer case in 1991 limit the types of questions that defence counsel can pose, and evidence it can introduce concerning a complainant's sexual history.
This information had sadly been used in our legal system to promote a stereotype, that a complainant is more likely to have consented, or is less credible, because of past sexual history. In 2000, the court upheld the rape shield provisions as being constitutional.
The new changes in this bill appear to stem from criticism rising in the famous Jian Ghomeshi case, which attracted a lot of media attention and dealt with societal discussions about sexual assault prosecutions in Canada. As members may recall, that case involved text messages and social media content by the complainants.
Some defence counsel are concerned that this bill will limit the evidence they can use to offer a full and complete defence. Others believe that those concerns are overrated.
Lise Gotell, national chair of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, LEAF, stated that the amendments simply recognized more contemporary forms of sexual communication. I agree with her. If the evidence is used for the purpose of demonstrating inconsistencies, it can still be included if it is only used to perpetuate sexual stereotypes.
I want to quote Ms. Gotell, directly, “There is no implied consent in Canadian law...and so previous sexual activity should be irrelevant to a belief that someone is consenting to the sexual activity in question.”
That is the key. There is no implied consent in Canadian law with respect to sexual assault. Past sexual history or communications on the Internet or Facebook or the like do not imply any kind of consent to the specific activity at that specific time. The courts have made that clear, and I am pleased that Bill C-51 now makes that clear as well.
More than 20 years ago, in the case R. v. O'Connor, the court ruled that medical and counselling records of a sexual assault case could be disclosed by judicial order. The government limited these productions through amendments, and that was upheld. In 1999, the court stated in R. v. Mills that the judiciary had adequate discretion to preserve a complainant's right to privacy and also still allow for a full and complete defence for the accused.
Although the nature of electronic communications today might be different, the concepts remain the same. Sexual assault complainants, who are almost exclusively women, are still subject to widespread stereotypes and prejudice based on their sexual history. Salacious texts and steamy graphics may be communicated differently today, but they are just as dangerous to the balance of justice.
These provisions that deal with the sexual assault measures of a court make a number of specific changes in addition to the ones I outlined a moment ago. The bill would amend the section to clarify that an unconscious person is incapable of consenting. Most of us would have thought that would be self-evident, but there was court case that clarified that. To the government's credit, it has brought in a clarification to the same effect.
What about incapacity to consent short of full unconsciousness, such as when a complainant is very drunk or maybe only semi-conscious? There are those who have said that somehow by putting this in, we would be creating uncertainty over those sorts of situations: severe intoxication and semi-consciousness. I am not concerned about that, because I believe there are other provisions that would address those in the code. That is one point that was made in debate at committee and elsewhere about this legislation.
Then there is the other clarification brought into the bill, which would clarify that the defence of mistaken belief in consent is not available if the mistake is based on a mistake of law, for example, if the accused believed that the complainant's failure to resist or protest meant that the complainant consented. The court clarified that in a case that was decided in 1999. Let us say that the consent was extorted, for example, someone threatens to show the world nude pictures unless the individual consents to having sex. That is not consent, and that needs to be clear . It is now increasingly clear in this case.
One thing that is fascinating in this legislation, and very positive as well, is the ability of the complainant to have legal representation in rape shield proceedings. She, as it is normally a she, can then retain counsel to be present and debate before the court the admissibility of diaries, text messages, or the like. That sounds great, and it is a positive step, but the practical reality for most Canadians is that they will not be able to take advantage of that, because sadly we do not have the money to do so. There is a dearth of legal aid in most provinces. We have a crisis in legal aid. Therefore, it is nice to have that, but I have to ask a practical question on whether people will be able to avail themselves of that. Will women be able to participate as has been suggested?
Again, to give credit to justice committee, on October 30 of this year, an excellent report on legal aid was produced. I would commend members in this place to read that report, because it talks about legal aid in very stirring terms. It talks about a service that “breathes life into the democratic principle of the rule of law by ensuring that low-income Canadians have access to the courts.”
Once again, all three parties worked collaboratively to produce this excellent report. Of course, it is an acknowledgement that most of this is provincial jurisdiction, but, nevertheless, the leadership and best practices were suggested, and I commend the committee for that.
However, unless the Government of Canada assists provinces with more legal aid funding, this laudable section that allows women for the first time to actually participate in and have a right of natural justice in criminal proceedings involving the disclosure of intimate information in situations where sexual assault is at issue, most of the time it will be irrelevant unless those women have legal aid. Canadians need to understand that reality.
I am here to make sure that this place and the government look favourably at the excellent legal aid report that was produced, so it will not just be another report gathering dust on the shelves of Parliament. I believe that the provisions at issue were dealt with very thoughtfully and are not simply symbolic. I think the report includes meaningful changes and hope that the government will move on them and put its money where its mouth has been.
A number of people are in agreement with the provisions in the report. I speak, for example, of Professor Elizabeth Sheehy of the University of Ottawa, and Emma Cunliffe of the University of British Columbia. They talked about the right of legal representation in rape shield hearings as an important step, but said it would be largely ineffectual unless provincial legal aid programs provide financial support to complainants seeking to retain a lawyer. I agree.
On the streets where these amazing workers in rape relief and women's shelters work day in and day out, tirelessly with victims of sexual assault, they also have concerns. Hilla Kerner spoke for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter when saying, “Women who work with us were very discouraged after what we saw in the Ghomeshi case." The provisions in the bill will send a message, Kerner continued, that "your past, the things you did before the attack and after the attack, will not deter the criminal justice system from actually dealing with the attack and holding men accountable.”
That is a very good indication that the message will be received by those who were so involved in counselling women after sexual assault. However, the law has changed. It's better now. People can come forward and do not have to be afraid. That has to be the number one objective of these amendments, namely, that women will not be afraid will not not think it is a waste of time to come forward.
The Globe and Mail is doing excellent work in showing how few sexual assaults are actually processed seriously by police departments across the land. They did an update this past weekend of an earlier award-winning series.
We are at the very heart of that issue with this bill, making it easier for women to come forward because they know there will be fairness. They will be taken seriously and the laws will not work against them. I think that is excellent.
Not everyone has applauded Bill C-51 in its entirety, in these glowing terms. Michael Spratt, the vice-president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, refers to this bill as “another half-hearted attempt to reform the justice system by grabbing the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.”
It is true that the government's mandate letter for the Minister of Justice speaks to a comprehensive reform of the Criminal Code. It is so overdue. Nevertheless, I do not fault the government for going after low-hanging fruit, in addressing duelling and trade stamps, for example, or these sorts of provisions, because it is also doing real work in the sexual assault provisions. We have to support it and give credit where credit is due.
One hopes that there will be the comprehensive reform of the Criminal Code that Professor Coughlan of the Dalhousie University, Schulich School of Law, has been seeking. I think and am confident we will get there.
On the issue of sexual assault, I commend the government for what it is doing. On the issue of charter statements, I say ho-hum, nice, but so what? However, on this stuff, this key change to our Criminal Code to give women in this country the confidence that it is worth coming forward, the government needs to be commended. We will support this bill without reservation.