Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill S-215, an act to amend the Criminal Code, which was introduced in the Senate on December 11, 2015, by the Hon. Senator Lillian Dyck. The bill's objective is to provide greater protection to indigenous women from certain violent offences.
I wish to note at the outset that this critical issue is currently being studied in the context of the National Inquiry into missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which is examining institutional policies and practices that have been put in place as a response to violence, including those that have been effective in reducing violence and increasing the safety of women and girls.
As many of the constituents in my riding of Parkdale—High Park have indicated to me, indigenous women are disproportionately impacted by violent crime. Therefore, I know that we all support the pressing objective that Bill S-215 identifies.
Bill S-215 seeks to achieve its objective through new provisions that would require a sentencing judge to treat the fact that a victim is an aboriginal woman as an aggravating factor when sentencing an offender for certain specific offences, including murder, assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm and sexual assault. If a judge determines that an aggravating factor is present in a given case, a higher sentence is expected to be imposed.
Denouncing and deterring violent offences against indigenous women is critical. However, after significant reflection, it is incumbent upon us to express the government's concerns about the potential effectiveness of the bill's reforms in achieving the important objective which it targets.
Specifically, Bill S-215's proposed reforms may duplicate or conflict with existing sentencing provisions and may be under-inclusive in terms of protecting indigenous women, as well as similarly vulnerable victims, from all violent crimes.
Notably, the Criminal Code already requires sentencing judges to treat as aggravating factors the fact that an offence was motivated by hate based on gender or race or the fact that the offender abused a spouse, common-law partner or child. That is covered in section 718.2 of the Criminal Code.
Furthermore, the Gladue principle, which is entrenched in the Criminal Code as a sentencing principle at paragraph 718.2(e), requires sentencing judges to consider the unique systemic and background factors that contributed to the commission of the offence, as well as all reasonable alternatives to imprisonment, when sentencing indigenous offenders.
Bill S-215's proposed aggravating factor may complicate the application of the Gladue principle. For example, in cases involving a female indigenous victim and an indigenous offender, a sentencing judge would be required both to lengthen the sentence for an indigenous offender's criminal conduct against an indigenous woman and, at the same time, to consider alternatives to incarceration, particularly in cases involving less serious types of offences, such as simple assault.
Assault is one of the most common offences charged in the context of intimate partner violence, and we know that this type of violence occurs in all cultures.
Although interpersonal violence is always a serious matter, we must keep in mind that Canada's definition of assault is broad and applies to any intentional and non-consensual application of force. ln some cases, especially those involving less serious forms of offending, incarceration may not always be the most appropriate response. Nor may it be the response supported by the victim, for example, in the context of intimate partner violence where the offender provides financial support to his family or takes care of the children while the spouse does so.
I am also concerned that the proposed aggravating factor may be too narrowly construed. Allow me to explain. For example, it would apply only to offenders sentenced for specific violent offences, such as uttering threats, assault, sexual assault and murder, but not to other types of offenders, such as those sentenced for human trafficking or other serious offences for which indigenous women and girls are overrepresented as victims.
These types of offenders are generally not indigenous themselves; rather, they may specifically target indigenous women because of their gender and ethnicity. For example, we know that indigenous women and girls are disproportionately represented among the vulnerable people who are sexually exploited in Canada. For that we can refer to the Department of Justice's 2014 technical paper on what was then Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.
We also know that indigenous women and girls are targeted for this type of exploitation precisely because of their vulnerability such that applying the proposed aggravating factor to simple assault, but not to human trafficking, seems incongruous in this context.
Bill S-215's aggravating factors would also not apply to offenders sentenced for violent crimes committed against non-indigenous female victims, some of whom may be similarly marginalized and vulnerable to predation. My specific concern here is that this type of approach could create an unintended “hierarchy” of victimization. It is important to point that out.
Also, in certain types of cases, aggravating factors may be inapplicable or apply only in the determination of the period of parole ineligibility. For example, first degree murder, as well as second degree murder where the offender was previously convicted of murder, is punishable by a mandatory minimum penalty of life imprisonment without eligibility for parole until 25 years has been served. Otherwise, second degree murder is punishable by a mandatory minimum penalty of life imprisonment without eligibility for parole until at least 10 years and up to 25 years has been served.
Therefore, in murder cases, aggravating factors can only be taken into account in determining the period of parole ineligibility, i.e., 10 to 25 years, for an offender sentenced for second degree murder, as long as the offender was not previously convicted of murder.
For all these reasons, there are concerns about the potential effectiveness of Bill S-215's proposed reforms in achieving the bill's objectives. ln certain situations, the proposed reforms may even create results that are inconsistent with their objectives. Therefore, I suggest that the bill's objectives and proposed reforms be further studied with a view to determining whether there are other ways to achieve its objectives, while avoiding the potential unintended consequences that I have just described.
Examining the impact of criminal legislation on indigenous persons is a critical part of ensuring that legislation responds appropriately to the unique lived realities, which are the result of a long history involving many different forms of abuse stemming from colonization.
ln particular, indigenous persons are overrepresented as both victims and offenders. A piecemeal approach to law reform, given this complex social context, could have unforeseen and undesirable consequences.
The complexity of these issues is reflected in the January 2016 FPT framework to address violence against indigenous women and girls, which identifies principles and priorities to assist in improving how the justice system prevents and responds to this type of violence. The framework concludes with a poignant statement on the multi-sectoral response that is required:
Violence against Indigenous women and girls is a serious concern in this country. The causes of the violence are complex, but closely linked to historical government policies, which led to current conditions of low socio-economic status and vulnerability to violence. There is no simple or singular solution to this issue. Stopping the violence will require the combined efforts of multiple sectors and stakeholders.
I therefore stress the importance of taking into consideration all of the complexities of this issue when analyzing what can be done to improve the protection of indigenous women from violent victimization. Significantly, the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry's report, which is expected to be released this spring, will provide important recommendations for concrete and effective action that can be taken to remove systemic causes of violence and increase the safety of indigenous women and girls.