moved that Bill S-215, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (sentencing for violent offences against Aboriginal women), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
[Member spoke in Cree]
Bill S-215 has been meandering its way through Parliament. It has now come to this place. It has come to the House of Commons, the people's place. It has moved through the Senate through first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage and third reading. It was proposed by Senator Lillian Dyck.
Bill S-215 would amend the Criminal Code to require a court to consider the fact that when a victim of an assault or murder is an aboriginal female it constitutes an aggravating circumstance for the purposes of sentencing. In doing so, it would add new sections immediately after sections 239 and 273 of the Criminal Code.
We know indigenous women are overrepresented in violence committed against women in Canada. We only need to think of cases like that of Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg. I remember all too well four years ago how a young girl had gone missing, but at first no one seemed to care. It was only upon her discovery at the bottom of the Red River wrapped in a plastic garbage bag that people actually took note. She was only discovered because people were looking for someone else in the Red River. They discovered her body there, and it galvanized the city of Winnipeg. For the next two days, thousands upon thousands of people came to walk the streets in protest, to raise awareness of the issue of violence against indigenous women and girls and to say enough was enough.
In fact, Tina Fontaine's death eventually led to the murdered and missing indigenous women's inquiry. It was one of those defining moments in Winnipeg, when people from all walks of life, whether indigenous, Caucasian, or from African or Asian heritage, all came together and really truly said that enough was enough.
However, this is not the only case we have of violence against indigenous women in Canada. There is the recent example of Cindy Gladue. Cindy Gladue was a 36-year-old Cree mother of three found bleeding to death in an Edmonton hotel bathtub in June of 2011. The accused in the case was a truck driver who had spent two days with Gladue. Gladue bled to death from an 11-centimetre tear to her vaginal wall, while the accused slept. The Crown later argued in court that the tear in her vagina was caused by a sharp object, and the defence argued that the tear was caused by consensual rough sex because she was a sex worker at the time. The jury found the accused was not guilty. This was last spring. The accused was found not guilty of murder, not even guilty of manslaughter.
Fortunately, the Attorney General of Alberta had common sense and appealed the decision, and it was just heard in the Supreme Court. In the last 20 years, there have only been three reported cases in Canada where the victim died as a result of rough sex. In all three of those cases, the defendant was convicted of at least manslaughter. As I said, the jury in the case did not even do that. There was no indigenous person on the jury. In an unprecedented move, the Crown actually entered into evidence the torn vagina of Cindy Gladue in the courtroom, and Gladue was reduced to a mutilated body part. This was not only highly offensive and extremely disrespectful to the victim and her family, it did not even result in a guilty verdict.
The second example is the case of Helen Betty Osborne. Osborne was 19 years old when she was abducted and brutally murdered near The Pas, Manitoba, on November 13, 1971. The RCMP eventually thought four men were responsible for the murder. However, charges against three of the men were not brought until 1986, 15 years after the murder. In the end, only one man was convicted to life in prison for the murder of Osborne, one man was acquitted and the third was given immunity and set free in exchange for testifying against the others.
It should be noted that Helen Betty's murder was extremely violent. She was badly beaten, assaulted and stabbed more than 50 times, apparently with a screwdriver. I remember this case, having read about it at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, where it was taught to us in class. Imagine reading about something like this. Thankfully, there is a building named in her honour at the University of Winnipeg.
Helen Betty's case sparked the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission to conduct an investigation into the length of time it took to resolve the case. The commission concluded that the most significant factors that delayed and deterred the case were racism, sexism and indifference from the community right through to the criminal justice system. The report stated:
It is clear that Betty Osborne would not have been killed if she had not been Aboriginal. The four men who took her to her death from the streets of The Pas that night had gone looking for an Aboriginal girl with whom to “party”. They found Betty Osborne. When she refused to party she was driven out of town and murdered. Those who abducted her showed a total lack of regard for her person or her rights as an individual. Those who stood by while the physical assault took place, while sexual advances were made and while she was being beaten to death showed their own racism, sexism and indifference. Those who knew the story and remained silent must share their guilt.
The whole community protected these men, so for 15 years the family suffered.
There are numerous cases in Canada. I could continue to enumerate all of them, but we must also think about other cases, which go on continuously here in Canada, about why indigenous women need greater protection, why we need to rebalance the scales of justice. Let us think of the Highway of Tears; between 18 and 40 women have gone missing on the Highway of Tears in British Columbia near Prince George.
I was speaking with Paul Lacerte and his daughter Raven, who started the Moose Hide Campaign, a patch that many of us wear in the House of Commons and that many of my colleagues care about. The campaign tries to raise awareness of this issue of violence against indigenous women and girls, and it is for men to have this issue raised among ourselves because it is not an issue of women who conduct the violence, it is an issue of men.
The father and daughter were out shooting a moose over a decade ago and they managed to shoot one. The father at first did not want to keep the hide, but his young daughter Raven, who was only around 10 at the time, said, “Dad, we can't throw it away. We need to use the entire animal.” He said, “What do we need a hide for?” She said, “Let's raise awareness, because we are not far from the Highway of Tears, and do something about the missing indigenous women and girls.”
This is an extremely important bill because it would rebalance the scales of justice. It is fair to say that being an aboriginal female is a unique circumstances. The combination of being aboriginal female and living in a colonial society has devalued and dehumanized our women, and they are seen as inherently less worthy than other women. Worse yet, the stereotype of aboriginal women as loose and sexually available still persists and makes them more vulnerable to unwanted and, unfortunately, more violent sexual assaults and more gruesome murders.
I heard from an elder in Quebec. He described where the word, the derogatory term, “kawish” comes from, which is used sometimes in Quebec to describe indigenous people. In fact its base is “awas”, “away” in Cree. According to the elder, it means to push someone away and it is from the sexual advances often made against indigenous women by non-indigenous men.
In addition, the so-called subtle discrimination against aboriginal women and girls in the justice system minimizes the grievous harm done to them, which can result in leniency in sentencing of the offenders. Bill S-215 would increase the likelihood that the consequences of assaulting or murdering an aboriginal woman or girl are appropriate and meaningful.
Bill S-215 obviously would not fix all of the complex issues of the criminal justice system, and that is not the goal, but this justice system has failed Cindy Gladue, Helen Betty Osborne and many other indigenous women and the bill is a step in the right direction toward reconciliation. By including aboriginal females as a specific aggravating circumstance—that is, a protected category of persons—we would acknowledge the historic roots that have led to their over-victimization and the systemic discrimination against them in the justice system.
Bill S-215 would amend the Criminal Code in two places. First, the bill inserts a new clause at the end of sections of the Criminal Code that outline the murder provisions. The new clause reads:
239.1 When a court imposes a sentence for an offence referred to in section 235, 236 or 239, it shall consider as an aggravating circumstance the fact that the victim of the offence is a female person who is Indian, Inuit or Métis.
Second, the bill inserts a new clause at the end of the sections of the Criminal Code that outline the assault and sexual assault provisions. This new clause reads:
273.01 When a court imposes a sentence for an offence referred to in paragraph 264.1(1)(a) or any of sections 265 to 269 or 271 to 273, it shall consider as an aggravating circumstance the fact that the victim of the offence is a female person who is Indian, Inuit or Métis.
The tragic phenomenon of the high numbers of missing aboriginal women and girls is undeniable. The homicide rate of aboriginal women is 4.8 times higher, or 4.8 per 100,000 people. The corresponding homicide rate is 3.2 for taxi drivers, 2.6 for police officers, and 0.8 for non-aboriginal women. Aboriginal women and girls are victims of more violent offences and go missing at far higher rates than other Canadian women. Bill C-215 would address this inequity by specific considerations of their greater vulnerabilities as an aggravating factor in sentencing.
Thus, if an aboriginal female is a victim of sexual assault or murder, her identity is an aggravating factor. Such a move would send a clear and strong message to the court system, to justices, judges, and the public at large, denouncing the violent targeting of aboriginal women and girls. Proclaiming the bill into law would demonstrate that we value indigenous women just as much as we value other women, taxi drivers, public transit operators, police officers, police dogs and other service animals.
The laws of our nation must reflect our values and the values of all our citizens. Terry Audla from the ITK stated, “we will be judged as a society on how we treat our most vulnerable.” We have an opportunity to truly make a great difference in the lives of more of our fellow citizens.
An eagle feather weighs not very much, but on the scales of inequality in Canada, it can help to readjust the scales of justice so that lady justice is not blind to the suffering of her fellow citizens. We all deserve justice in our country. We deserve justice because this is what we aspire to as a nation. We desire and deserve basic respect and indigenous women need our protection at this time. They need our protection at this time because no one else is giving it to them. Many in our society still consider them less than valuable, less than human. If we cannot protect our most vulnerable citizens, then how can we send a message around the world? How can we stand tall as a beacon of hope and democracy and proclaim our charter as protecting all of us?
It may be difficult to single out one group, but we have done this for taxi drivers, police service dogs and police officers. For a short time, until our society has caught up to what it truly means to have a charter of hope and true equality, it is time to protect our most vulnerable, indigenous women and girls and to take a stand in Parliament to complete the work that was done on behalf of all Canadians in the Senate, which has already looked at the bill and sees it of value. Now it is time for the House of Commons to consider it, weigh it and hopefully tip the scales of justice to a greater level of equality and justice.
[Member spoke in Cree]