Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-51, which is important legislation. I do not necessarily agree with my colleague across the way when he talks about the omnibus nature of legislation. In fact, a very thorough review has taken place. This legislation is a reflection, as I made reference to in my question, of court decisions that have been made. along with a review from bureaucrats and others who have been involved in trying to update or modernize our Criminal Code.
I have had the opportunity to look at the Criminal Code, and it is a fairly wordy document. We need to modernize it or make a genuine attempt to make changes like these. Sometimes legislation or law needs to change. I cannot recall the details right off hand, other than the fact that one of the changes would get rid of duelling. I am sure people would have to look long and hard to find the last time there was an actual duelling of swords in Canada. There is legislation that, because it is never repealed or taken out of the Criminal Code, just becomes somewhat dated. Therefore, it is necessary for us to take a look at it and make changes.
My colleague across the way made a couple of references on which I want to pick up, for example, the charter statement. For years I sat in the opposition benches. We would look at government legislation and quite often question if it was charter proof, or if there was a legal opinion with regard to legislation, that it would go through the court system and meet the charter. On many occasions, I have stood in the House and talked about the importance of the charter and different perspectives. Canadians have responded, over three decades-plus of having the charter, that the charter is part of our Canadian values. Often, when I sat in opposition, the government would talk a fairly tough line on criminal matters.
At times, the government would bring in ideas and we questioned whether it had a legal opinion on whether it would be successful if it went to a Supreme Court. We would challenge the government to ensure legislation would be vetted to ensure it would be in compliance, as much as possible, if not all of the time, with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A very positive aspect of the legislation before us is the charter statement. It would require government to have that charter statement for legislation it introduced to the House. That is a very strong positive, and I am very supportive of it being in the legislation.
I want to pick up on an issue about which the Conservatives have spoken. The Conservatives are leaving the impression that a change to the legislation with respect to the repeal of section 176, as originally suggested in the legislation and is no longer happening, is because of the fine work of the Conservative Party. That is a false impression. I too had had constituents of mine in Winnipeg North and others express genuine concern about why section 176 of the Criminal Code would be repealed.
For those following the debate, like me, who were not part of the committee discussions but may be interested in exactly what members have already said today, section 176 was originally going to be repealed. When the bill was introduced to the House at second reading, it was proposed that section 176 of the Criminal Code be repealed. It currently states:
Every one who (a) by threats or force, unlawfully obstructs or prevents or endeavours to obstruct or prevent a clergyman or minister from celebrating divine service or performing any other function in connection with his calling...
The response to the proposal to the repeal of that section, which many individuals came to know somewhere between first reading and second reading, was brought to my attention. I was really quite glad to see the system works. I do not believe I was alone. I suspect other members of Parliament on both sides of the House were approached on this issue. From my perspective, that demonstrates the system works.
After second reading, the bill went to committee. Members on all sides of the House recognized, whether it was through the committee chair or the committee membership, that high sense of co-operation and understanding of the things that needed to be done. Presenters came forward and recommended, in essence, what many of us were hearing in our constituencies.
I was not surprised that an amendment brought forward to keep section 176. In fact, I believe it was improved upon in the Criminal Code. The standing committee addressed the concerns to repeal section 176 and amended it. It also added more strength to it by expanding it so it went beyond only ministers to include spiritual leaders and so forth, which was a positive change. Had it not even been in the original legislation, that aspect would not have been changed. Therefore, we have a stronger section 176 of the Criminal Code.
I want to emphasize that clause, because it gives me room to let my constituents know that when we talk about trying to improve legislation, we have a process that allows for that. Bill C-51 is a very good example of this.
From what I understand, at least one opposition amendment was approved. As well, a number of government members brought forward amendments to improve the legislation. That clearly demonstrates that second reading is a great opportunity to get a good understanding in principle of what the legislation is about. It then goes to committee where experts are afforded the opportunity to provide their thoughts. Members of Parliament are able to reflect on the clauses, and caucuses, either directly or indirectly, are able to feed their thoughts into the need for change, and we saw amendments. This amendment was a very strong positive, because constituents of mine wanted to see that happen.
I applaud the efforts of the standing committee and the fine work it did in returning the legislation to where we are today. Today we have fairly good support for it coming from all political parties. I understand that many inside and outside the chamber see this as strong legislation, which will further advance the important issue of sexual assault.
We often underestimate just how serious sexual assault is in Canada. In 2016, some 20,000-plus incidents were reported. Those number are far too high. I do not know how it compares to previous years, all I know is that it is an unacceptable number.
When we look at the 20,000-plus incidents reported in 2016, we can anticipate that for every one reported, many others were not. We need to talked about this more. The government and the House need to look at ways in which we can ensure individuals who are victims feel comfortable in knowing society as a whole encourages them to come forward. We all understand and can appreciate the consequences of this type of violent crime. The numbers are significant and very upsetting. It affects all communities.
We can talk about bringing in the legislation and trying to improve it, but it is going to take more than just legislation. There needs to be a national-led approach on how we can deal with the issue sexual assault. I am very happy to hear that different departments, in particular Public Safety and Status of Women, are engaged and are on top of this. We need to promote this dialogue.
I have always thought we vastly underestimate the roles our school divisions throughout the country can play on the issue of violence, in particular sexual assault. I would like to see different stakeholders provide more ideas and have more dialogue. What takes place in our schools is of critical importance.
I used to be the education critic in Manitoba. We often talked about setting the curriculum for our schools and the important role the provincial government had with respect to that curriculum. Likely some areas in the country have better practices. This is where a national government can play a leadership role by looking for better practices and trying as much as possible to encourage and promote those practices in other jurisdictions. That is one of the reasons why I believe in the importance of having interprovincial discussion groups, having a government and its ministers taking these important issues to the many different tables they sit around.
The legislation is important, we recognize that, which brings me right to the bill itself. It proposes to remove and repeal the passage of provisions of the code that have been ruled unconstitutional in many ways by our courts or raise concerns under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the passage of provisions that are obsolete, redundant and/or quite frankly no longer in place in criminal law itself.
I want to clarify that strengthening the criminal law of sexual assault is expected to assist in enhancing a better understanding of the law and addressing concerns about the law's application. I believe that the better the understanding of the law, the simpler it is made known to victims, the greater the likelihood that we would have victims approving and coming forward to report what has taken place in their particular situation.
I would suggest that the proposed changes to the Department of Justice Act and Criminal Code reflect the government's unwavering commitment to promote respect for the charter and the rule of law. I made reference to the years we sat in opposition and how important it was that when government brought forward legislation that we in the opposition ensured there was a charter test applied to it. This legislation does just that.
Repealing provisions that are very similar to those found unconstitutional by the courts will help avoid expensive and time-consuming litigation. Avoiding unnecessary litigation will also help to prevent court delays and backlogs, which is so critically important.
We can see that the members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights did an outstanding job in reviewing the bill, and making the amendments I have made reference to, which were of the utmost importance.
The government is committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system protects Canadians, and holds offenders to account for their actions, that it upholds the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and shows compassion to victims. We have to ensure that the confidentiality and privacy of victims are protected as much as humanly possible. It is critically important. This includes the unwavering commitment to ensuring that victims of sexual assault are treated with the utmost dignity and level of respect.
During the study, we heard from many individuals who came before the committee on the importance of clarity of what sexual assault laws are. The feedback provided was most welcomed for us to have a better understanding of how a person has given consent, and the need to recognize that if someone is unconscious that person is not capable of giving consent. Therefore, it provides more definition and clarity in that area.
Based on what I am hearing from the members opposite, I believe there is fairly good support for the legislation. With respect to those areas that were repealed, for the most part, with one or possibly two exceptions, the House seems to be fairly supportive. The one greatest exception, section 176, has been dealt with in an appropriate fashion. I know I was quite grateful that it was repealed.
I see that my time has expired. I appreciate the opportunity to share a few thoughts on this piece of legislation.