Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak this afternoon in support of Bill C-5, an act to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code of Canada. The bill is premised on the conviction that when survivors of sexual assault appear before our courts, they have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and to be assured that the law of sexual assault is being faithfully applied. There is no room for court decisions to be tainted by harmful myths and stereotypes of how survivors of sexual assault ought to behave. The determination to tackle this problem is deeply held by this government. However, I know it is also shared by parliamentarians from all regions of the country and all political stripes.
For far too long, victims of sexual assault have had to deal with a justice system that does not treat them with the dignity they deserve.
Many victims of sexual assault decide not to file a complaint because they are afraid of being mistreated and humiliated. That is why most sexual assaults committed in Canada are not reported to the police.
This is not an issue that is easy to resolve. Parliament alone cannot do it. Improving the way the justice system treats victims of sexual assault requires the mobilization of all levels of government and many stakeholders for broad action. In addition, all members of Canadian society have a shared responsibility to challenge and counter the myths, stereotypes and attitudes that have a pernicious effect on our justice system.
In this regard, education and information play a critical role. I applaud the extraordinary work that many organizations and individuals right around Canada are doing tirelessly to this end. However, Parliament has its own responsibilities. As parliamentarians, we can and we must take action. Canadians need to know that their elected representatives in this chamber are resolutely working toward a criminal justice system that all Canadians can trust and turn to, especially those who are the most vulnerable.
To this end, this bill seeks to ensure that superior court judges have the awareness, skills and knowledge to handle sexual assault cases in a manner that is fair to the parties, that is free from myths and stereotypes and that treats survivors with utmost dignity.
The bill also promotes rigour and transparency by requiring that judges provide reasons for their decisions in sexual assault proceedings and that these reasons be set out in writing or in the record of the proceedings.
I would like to acknowledge the remarkable leadership on this matter by the Hon. Rona Ambrose, the former interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, in the last Parliament. In the previous Parliament, Ms. Ambrose introduced Bill C-337, the predecessor to the very bill before us today.
As we will recall, Bill C-337 received unanimous support in this very chamber, strengthened by an amendment brought forward by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which did excellent work on studying the bill. It worked to amend it to include social context education in the bill. That complementary piece will ensure that judicial training and education includes working to better understand the demographics, the background and the lived experience of the litigants who appear before our courts.
The Senate sent the bill to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which proposed meaningful amendments to address concerns about the bill undermining the independence of the justice system.
Members may recall that many stakeholders and parliamentarians, including the bill's sponsor, applauded the work of the Senate committee to improve the bill in question.
I agree with that view of the committee's amendments. Unfortunately, we were unable to pass the bill before the end of the previous Parliament.
Since the last Parliament, we have seen cross-party support for reviving this important measure. This is evidence of the strong support for the convictions underpinning this important bill, convictions which transcend political parties and partisan interests.
I want to thank all the parties, as well as our colleagues in the other chamber, for their commitment to a collaborative approach to this initiative. Canadians have sent us to this chamber with a clear message that they expect parliamentarians to work together. Our work on the bill is a clear illustration that we are listening and acting accordingly.
The bill places particular emphasis on the judiciary. Our government recognizes the need for education, not only for judges but also for all actors in the justice system. We are working with our provincial and territorial counterparts and justice stakeholders to expand our efforts in this area. However, the focus of the bill before the House today is on judges. To be a judge is to bear an important responsibility.
I want to quote from the Hon. Justice Gonthier, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. He said:
The judge is the pillar of our entire justice system, and of the rights and freedoms which that system is designed to promote and protect. Thus, to the public, judges not only swear by taking their oath to serve the ideals of Justice and Truth on which the rule of law in Canada and the foundations of our democracy are built, but they are asked to embody them.
Justice Gonthier continued:
...the personal qualities, conduct and image that a judge projects affect those of the judicial system as a whole and, therefore, the confidence that the public places in it.
The confidence of the public in the administration of justice is critical to the underpinning of the bill that is before us.
Given judges' fundamental role, the public has especially high expectations of them. The Canadian Judicial Council put it as follows:
From the time they are considered for appointment to the Bench, and every day thereafter, superior court judges in Canada are expected to be knowledgeable jurists. They are also expected to demonstrate a number of personal attributes including knowledge of social issues, an awareness of changes in social values, humility, fairness, empathy, tolerance, consideration and respect for others. In short, Canadians expect their judges to know the law but also to possess empathy and to recognize and question any past personal attitudes and sympathies that might prevent them from acting fairly.
In order for judges to meet these very high public expectations, relevant judicial education is essential. This education must be continually evolving in order for judges to perform their duties in situations that are constantly changing, that are dynamic. A lot of great work is being done now, but now there is a need to enshrine in legislation that this is an expected requirement going forward. That is why judicial education is a central feature of the bill under consideration before us now, Bill C-5.
Our criminal law has undergone considerable reform over the past three decades to encourage reporting of sexual assaults; to improve the criminal justice system's response to sexualized violence; and to counter discriminatory views of survivors that stem from myths and stereotypes about how a “true victim” is expected to behave. We know that such perceptions, myths and stereotypes have no role in the justice system in 2020, and that is what the bill targets.
As a result, the Criminal Code prohibits all forms of non-consensual sexual activity. It provides a clear definition of consent. It identifies when consent cannot be obtained. It set outs the rules for admissibility of certain types of evidence to deter the introduction of these harmful myths and stereotypes.
I would now like to explain a few of the proposed legislative amendments.
The bill before us is, as I mentioned at the outset, essentially the same as the former Bill C-337, as amended by the Senate.
In order to require newly appointed judges to undergo training on sexual assault law and social context, the bill proposes to amend the Judges Act and to include a new eligibility requirement.
Under this amendment, candidates for employment as a judge of the superior court will be required to make a commitment to undertake this type of training if they are appointed. That is an important caveat. Upon appointment is when the training would take place. This training is to ensure that the courts take into account Canada's extensive law and jurisprudence on sexual assault and information on the social context of litigants, without being influenced by preconceived or erroneous ideas.
The bill would also clarify that seminars established by the Canadian Judicial Council on matters related to sexual assault law must be developed after consultation with groups or individuals the council considers appropriate, including sexual assault survivors and groups supporting them.
In addition, the bill would require the Canadian Judicial Council to provide to the Minister of Justice, for tabling in Parliament, an annual report containing details on seminars offered on matters relating to sexual assault law and indicating the number of judges who have been attending. This is intended to enhance accountability in the education of sitting judges on these matters and to act as an incentive to encourage their participation.
Finally, the bill would amend the Criminal Code to require judges to provide reasons for decisions under sexual assault provisions of the Criminal Code. This amendment is intended to enhance the transparency of judicial decisions made in sexual assault proceedings by rendering them accessible, either in writing or on the record of the proceedings, so oral reasons would be sufficient as well.
I want to mention that this proposed amendment to require judges to provide reasons in the determination of sexual assault matters specifically is complementary to three currently existing requirements:
First, the members in the chamber should understand that section 726.2 of the Criminal Code requires judges to provide reasons when they are sentencing decisions.
Second, there is jurisprudence from the Supreme Court in a 2002 decision called Sheppard, which requires judges to provide reasons for their decisions more generally.
Third, subsections 278.8(2) and 278.94(5) of the Criminal Code require judges to provide reasons when determining whether certain types of evidence should be admitted in sexual assault cases.
Under this bill, the obligation to state reasons will be added to the other Criminal Code provisions relating to sexual assault. As a result, all provisions relating to sexual offences will be clear and accessible to the people applying them, thereby reducing the risk of an erroneous application of law by countering the potential influence of myths and stereotypes about victims of sexual assault and their behaviour.
This approach is in line with the Supreme Court of Canada's finding that these myths and stereotypes can undermine the courts' truth-seeking function.
It is also important to note for the purposes of today's debate that the government has already committed significant resources to support the availability of enhanced judicial training in this very area. In the 2017 budget, we provided the Canadian Judicial Council with $2.7 million over five years, and half a million dollars per year thereafter, to ensure that more judges have access to professional development, with a greater focus in particular on gender and culturally sensitive training.
Our government is also actively at work with stakeholders to ensure that appropriate training is available to all of Canada's judiciary; that is, to judges who are not federally appointed. Again, I want to acknowledge in this chamber the leadership and determination of the Hon. Rona Ambrose in making this happen as well.
Next, I want to turn to the important principle of judicial independence. This bill is designed to support that constitutionally entrenched principle. I parenthetically note that in my previous life as a constitutional litigator, I spent considerable time working on this very principle and dealing with this very issue. I am very proud to say today that the bill we are debating in this chamber clearly supports the principle of judicial independence, and importantly the principle that the education of judges should be the responsibility of the judiciary. That is an important feature that is entrenched in this bill.
Whatever measures are taken to ensure that judges have access to sexual assault training and its social context, those measures would be ill-advised if they interfere with judicial independence.
Public trust requires knowing not only that judges have the expertise required to settle the disputes that come before them, but also knowing that they are independent of Parliament, the executive branch and any other group that could try to unduly influence them.
We in Canada are fortunate to have a strong, independent judicial system. We cannot take this independence for granted, and as parliamentarians, we must work to preserve and promote it.
What I can report to this chamber is that Canada's judiciary is strongly committed to ensuring that the best possible education is available to judges. In fact Canada, thankfully, is an internationally respected leader in judicial education and is a trailblazer in social context education in particular.
Let me briefly highlight the important roles of two organizations that oversee the work of judges. The first is the Canadian Judicial Council, which I briefly mentioned earlier, and the second is the National Judicial Institute.
The Canadian Judicial Council is responsible for setting professional development requirements for superior court judges. In its professional development policy, the council requires judges newly appointed to a superior court to complete an education program for new judges, as well as a more general program to be completed within five years of appointment. These programs include sexual assault law and social context education. What we are doing with this bill is making this a formal requirement.
The National Judicial Institute is responsible for the overall coordination of judicial education in Canada. In addition to being a primary education provider, the National Judicial Institute is an internationally recognized leader in judicial education. The institute seeks to integrate substantive law, skills development and awareness of social context in all of its programs.
I want to acknowledge the significant commitment of the Canadian Judicial Council and the National Judicial Institute to ensuring that judges have access to the training they need. We thank them for their full commitment to a justice system that all Canadians can trust, especially those who are most vulnerable.
It is also important to acknowledge in this chamber the important and respectful dialogue between the judicial and legislative branches that the previous bill, Bill C-337, triggered in the last Parliament, which I am confident will continue as the current bill, Bill C-5, is debated and studied. All partners in this dialogue share a strong commitment to a justice system that survivors of sexual assault can trust and that all vulnerable persons can trust, a justice system that treats them with the dignity and respect they so dearly deserve.
It is also important to outline how this bill would work within the context of other government commitments and government actions. Supporting victims and survivors of crime is a priority for our government. This includes working with provinces and territories to provide free legal advice and support to survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. It includes the government's commitment, announced in the Speech from the Throne, to build on the gender-based violence strategy and work with partners to develop a national action plan.
The bill before us represents a major step forward. It gives parliamentarians an opportunity to send a clear message to all Canadian victims of sexual assault that we are not indifferent to their experiences, that courage is an inspiration and that they deserve a justice system that treats them with the utmost dignity and respect.
I know that we all share the same convictions in this regard, which is why I urge all members on both sides of this House to agree to support the very important measures contained in Bill C-5.