Madam Speaker, our government was proud to introduce Bill C-51 on June 6, 2017. That day marked an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to make the criminal law fairer, clearer, more relevant, accessible, and compassionate.
Since that time, Bill C-51 has been the subject of extensive and compelling debate both at the second reading stage and during its study by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
I want to offer my thanks to the many members who have participated in these debates and to members of the standing committee in particular, whose deliberations strengthened Bill C-51 through amendments that seek to further the objectives we identified when we introduced this important legislation.
I would also like to extend my great appreciation to the many witnesses who took the time to examine the bill and appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Although I may not agree with all the points that were made by the witnesses who spoke to this bill, I fully recognize the importance of their contributions because they have allowed Parliament to have a rich and thorough discussion on the bill.
I now want to walk through the changes included in Bill C-51. These have received broad support in this House, at committee, and among key stakeholders.
Bill C-51 seeks to address sexual assault, an issue that could scarcely be more relevant, given the present Canadian and international discourse on this important subject. Survivors of sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct are standing up and speaking out as never before. I am proud to say that our government stands behind survivors and that we are adding our voice to theirs by bringing change on numerous fronts, including the reforms set out in Bill C-51.
The bill proposes amendments that build upon an already robust legal framework that has been consistently regarded as one of the best sexual assault regimes in the world. However, despite its explicit acknowledgement that outdated myths about a victim's sexual history should have no bearing on whether she should be believed, and despite the clear rules about when consent is or is not valid in law, challenges remain.
What are those challenges? We know that sexual assaults continue to occur far too often in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, there were approximately 21,000 police-reported sexual assaults in Canada in 2016. That is an average of 57 sexual assaults every day in Canada. That number is staggering, but when, according to the general survey on victimization, only five per cent of sexual assaults experienced by Canadians over 15 are reported to the police, the likely number of actual sexual assaults that occur every day in Canada becomes unfathomable and could well be over 1,000 incidents every day. When thinking about those numbers and the fact that so many cases of sexual assault go unreported, we must think about what we can do to not only reduce the incidence of sexual assault in Canada but ensure that more victims, and let us be clear that this is a gender-based crime that disproportionately targets women and girls, feel encouraged to come forward to report their experiences to the police and to law enforcement.
One way we can, at the federal level, help encourage women to come forward is through law reform that increases the likelihood that our laws will be applied as they were intended, and in so doing, reduce the potential for unnecessary distress experienced by victims who participate in the criminal justice process. That is what Bill C-51 proposes to do. As introduced, it would make important changes to clarify the law, including by making clear that consent must be affirmatively expressed by words or actively expressed through conduct. This principle would codify the Supreme Court of Canada's 1999 Ewanchuk decision and make clear that there is no consent unless the complainant said yes through words or through conduct. Passivity is not consent.
We have also codified the principle set down by the court in its 2011 decision in R. v. J.A., where the court held that a person cannot consent in advance to sexual activity that occurs while they are unconscious.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights heard a number of witnesses on this particular amendment. Some witnesses expressed their support for this codification, but others argued that it did not entirely or accurately codify the court's findings in R. v. J.A. Those witnesses argued that J.A. stands for a broader proposition. They noted that the court held that our consent law requires ongoing conscious consent and that partners have to be capable of asking their partners to stop at any point. Our government was listening carefully to witnesses and members, and we are pleased to support the committee's amendment to Bill C-51 that would codify this broader principle from J.A. Doing so is in keeping with the objectives of the bill, including to ensure that the Criminal Code is clear and reflects the law as applied by the courts.
Bill C-51's proposed sexual assault reforms do more, however, than simply codify key Supreme Court decisions. They will also create a new regime governing the admissibility of evidence in the hands of an accused person, where that evidence is a complainant’s private record. At its core, this regime is anchored in the following key principles.
First, it respects the fair trial rights of the accused in that it does not prevent relevant evidence from being used in court. The Supreme Court has already recognized that an accused's right to full answer and defence does not include a right to defence by ambush.
Second, it acknowledges the privacy interests of a complainant. While privacy interests do not trump all else, the regime seeks to acknowledge that victims of sexual assault and other related crime, even when participating in a trial, have a right to have their privacy considered and respected to the greatest extent possibly.
Finally, the regime seeks to facilitate the truth-seeking function of the courts by ensuring that evidence that is clearly irrelevant to an issue at trial is not put before the courts, with its potential to obfuscate and distract the trier of fact.
These are important changes and ones that have been called for by Parliament. In their 2012 report on the third-party-records regime in sexual assault proceedings, the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended the enactment of a regime governing the admissibility of a complainant's private records in the hands of an accused. I am pleased that we are doing so as part of Bill C-51.
The second major aspect of Bill C-51 is its proposal to clean up the Criminal Code by removing offences that are no longer relevant because they address conduct that is not inherently blameworthy, because the criminal law should not be used to target such conduct, or because the conduct is addressed by other offences of general application.
To be clear, a foundational principle upon which our criminal law is based is that of restraint. This means that we, as parliamentarians, should ensure that criminal offences, with all the attendant stigma and consequences associated with being called a criminal, are only used to address conduct that cannot or should not be addressed through other mechanisms. Bill C-51 would reflect this principle by removing offences such as the prohibition on advertising the return of stolen property “no questions asked”, a provision under section 143; making crime comics; challenging someone to a duel; and impersonating someone during a university exam.
I am confident that removing these offences will have no adverse consequences and will help make our criminal law more reflective of the values Canadians hold dear in 2017.
Bill C-51 would make other important changes to remove offences that are no longer pertinent in today's society. One such example is the removal of the offence of blasphemous libel under, currently, section 296. This old offence, with its English origins in the 1600s, has as its purpose the suppression of criticism directed at God, the king, and government. Such an offence is a historical holdover and has no place in a liberal democracy, where freedom of expression is enshrined as a constitutionally protected right. In so removing this offence, we would follow the example of the United Kingdom, which repealed its analogous offence almost a decade ago, in 2008.
During the committee proceedings on Bill C-51, we heard testimony from the Centre for Free Expression that we should go further and that in addition to repealing blasphemous libel, our government should be repealing the offences targeting seditious and defamatory libel as well. Although such amendments would have been outside the scope of the bill, these are interesting suggestions, and they do indeed warrant further discussion.
I know, for example, that England abolished its seditious libel offences in 2009. I also know that there are divergent opinions on whether defamatory libel should be criminal. We have all benefited from the discussion on these proposals, and our government will take them under advisement as we continue to examine ways to make our criminal law and criminal justice system more reflective and responsive to the realities of Canada today
Before moving on, let me talk briefly about the amendment made by the standing committee to Bill C-51, which is supported by our government, that seeks to retain section 176, the offence of interfering with religious services. As the minister said when she appeared before the committee to discuss the bill, the repeal of section 176 would, in fact, not leave a gap in the criminal law's ability to meaningfully respond to the conduct captured by this offence. She also said that its removal would not in any way undermine the ability of Canadians to practice their faith freely and free from violence. Both statements remain true today.
At the same time, we appreciate and acknowledge that for many stakeholders, the removal of the offence would send the wrong message and that in an era when xenophobia and religious intolerance are all too frequent, Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that its actions do not, directly or indirectly, provide opportunities for the promotion of such intolerance.
Our government was listening carefully to members of the religious community, and I am pleased to say that we will support not only the retention of section 176 but an expansion of that section to ensure maximum inclusivity.
By way of conclusion on this point, I would note that intolerance of any kind is simply unacceptable, and I know that the vast majority of Canadians, even when they may not share the same religious convictions as their neighbours, will conduct themselves in a manner that is respectful and welcoming. Intolerance that leads to threats or violence must be swiftly addressed by the police, and I know that the criminal law provides them with a broad range of tools to effectively respond to such conduct.
Bill C-51 also reflects our government's unwavering commitment to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It does so in a number of ways. First, Bill C-51 proposes to amend provisions that have been found unconstitutional by our courts.
In this vein, Bill C-51 builds on the work we started with Bill C-39, which we introduced on March 8, 2017. Bill C-39 repeals provisions found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as the prohibition against anal intercourse that has been found unconstitutional by numerous courts of appeal.
Bill C-51 seeks to repeal provisions found unconstitutional by appeal courts, and in some cases trial courts, in circumstances where there can be little doubt as to their unconstitutionality. For example, Bill C-51 seeks to repeal the rule that prevents judges from giving enhanced credit for pre-sentence custody for offenders who were detained due to a bail breach. This rule has been found unconstitutional by the Manitoba Court of Appeal and creates a situation where similarly situated offenders can receive substantially different credit for pre-sentence custody, which can undermine public confidence in the administration of justice.
Bill C-51 also proposes to amend a number of provisions that could result in an accused's being convicted for an offence, even though they raised a reasonable doubt as to their guilt. Such an outcome is at odds with the most basic rules and fundamental principles upon which our criminal law is based, not to mention our charter rights.
These changes are important, and we are not waiting for costly unnecessary charter litigation to tell us that these rules are unconstitutional. Making these changes would ensure that our criminal justice system is more efficient and continues to hold offenders to account while reinforcing the fundamental principle that it is the state that bears the responsibility of proving offences beyond a reasonable doubt.
Our respect for the charter is also evident in the changes we are proposing to the Department of Justice Act. Although these changes have not been the subject of significant debate or commentary, a number of witnesses who testified before the justice committee welcomed this innovation in our law.
The amendments proposed in Bill C-51 will require our government, and all future governments, to table in Parliament a statement outlining the potential charter effects of all government legislation. The Minister of Justice has been doing this already as a matter of practice, but with Bill C-51, it will become an obligation.
These charter statements provide information to Parliament, stakeholders, and the public writ large about the charter rights and freedoms that are potentially engaged by a bill and set out how they may be engaged.
In the charter statement for Bill C-51, for example, the sexual assault reforms are discussed and an explanation is provided on how they interact with an accused's section 7 right to life, liberty, and security of the person. The charter statement further notes how a failure to remove unconstitutional laws can undermine the rule of law, create confusion, and make our Criminal Code less accessible.
I am proud of these reforms and believe that charter statements will quickly become a critical resource for justice system participants, parliamentarians, and members of the public who are interested in learning more about how our laws may engage the charter.
Let me conclude by again thanking all members for their excellent deliberations on Bill C-51. The widespread support it has received is testament to its importance and the need to move forward with these changes. I look forward to continuing to follow Bill C-51's passage through Parliament, and will continue to work diligently to bring forward the kinds of changes needed to address the most pressing challenges facing our criminal justice system today.