Mr. Speaker, thank you once again for permitting me to take part in this important debate on Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.
The most recent Speech from the Throne referenced the millions of women and girls worldwide who continue to suffer from abuse and violence, including forced and early marriage, polygamy, and so-called honour-based violence. Since the throne speech, we have repeatedly affirmed the government's commitment to ensuring that barbaric cultural practices do not take place on Canadian soil.
Bill S-7 would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act, and the Criminal Code to provide more protection and support for vulnerable individuals, primarily women and children. Its measures would render permanent and temporary residents inadmissible if they practise polygamy in Canada. It would strengthen Canadian marriage laws by establishing a new national minimum age for marriage of 16 and by codifying the existing legal requirements for free and enlightened consent for marriage and for ending an existing marriage prior to entering another one. It would criminalize certain conduct related to underage and forced marriage ceremonies, including the act of removing a child from Canada for the purpose of such marriages. It would help protect potential victims of underage or forced marriages by creating a new specific court-ordered peace bond where there are grounds to fear that someone would commit an offence in this area. It would ensure that the defence of provocation would not apply to so-called honour killings and many spousal homicides.
Together, these measures would help immigrant women and girls exercise their own free will and seek the opportunities and success in Canada they deserve.
It is essential to our democracy and our society that all women and girls be allowed to participate to the fullest extent. To help them do so, our government wants to ensure that immigrant women and girls are protected and are no longer subjected to abuse and violence. The bill sets out a multi-pronged approach to do just that.
Women who seek a better life for themselves and their families in Canada should never be subject to constant fear and the threat of violence or death. They need to feel safe, welcome, and protected.
The fact is that barbaric cultural practices are occurring on Canadian soil, with the potential for severe and sometimes fatal consequences for the victims of these very violent acts.
In the words of Salma Siddiqui, the president of the Coalition of Progressive Canadian Muslim Organizations, during a recent appearance before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration:
Who in their right mind can support coercion and honour killings? Bill S-7 does contain a number of sensible elements that all Canadians should embrace. The explicit outlawing of forced marriages and bringing precision to the general provincial practice that 16 is a minimum age for marriage is very reasonable. The provisions that will make it illegal to transport a child under 16 abroad for the purpose of marriage will certainly go a long way in preventing the trafficking of helpless young women.
In a November op-ed, in the National Post, this is what Aruna Papp stated:
Over the last 30 years, I have founded agencies in Toronto that assist immigrant women; I have met hundreds of women who are victims of forced marriages and domestic violence. The government's “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” recognizes the plight of these women. In presenting this bill, the government of Canada has said, in effect, “As a Canadian citizen, you, too, deserve to live a life free of violence and coercion”. For this I am grateful.
That is exactly what the bill would do. It would acknowledge and address the plight of women facing abuse and violence in the very communities in which we live. It would create an environment in which they can feel safe to seek help and protection and where they can thrive, making their own choices for their futures. As Ms. Papp expressed so well, all Canadians deserve to live a life free of violence and coercion.
As well, we know that immigrant and newcomer women and girls face additional barriers in protecting themselves and in seeking assistance compared to women born in Canada. The Government of Canada is committed to helping break down these additional barriers. For example, these newcomers may not be familiar with our laws, or they may not know that certain harmful practices are illegal, inappropriate, or indeed a form of violence. These practices also have a negative and lasting impact on the families and on society in general. We all suffer as long as we allow these practices to continue unchecked.
Our government is working on a number of ways, with concrete steps, to support these women in every way we can. Both the Canada citizenship study guide “Discover Canada” and the “Welcome to Canada” orientation guide were recently updated to reflect the fact that Canada's openness and generosity do not extend to harmful practices such as forced marriage or other forms of gender-based family violence.
Since its introduction, the guide has proven to be popular not only with newcomers to Canada but indeed with many Canadians interested in learning about the rights and responsibilities that come with being a citizen of our great country. One of the points made explicit to all readers of “Discover Canada” is that men and women are equal under Canadian law. The guide states:
Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence
Who can argue with that? Certainly no reasonably minded Canadian living in this wonderful multicultural mosaic of tolerance, acceptance, love, and respect for one another would argue with that comment. While the equality of men and women under the law is a fundamental Canadian value, barbaric cultural practices still exist as a reality for many Canadian women and girls.
Another measure we have taken is Status of Women Canada's investment of $2.8 million for community-based projects that address harmful cultural practices, such as so-called honour-based violence and forced marriage. Further, since 2009, Justice Canada has held six sector-specific workshops on forced marriage and so-called honour-based violence with police, crowns, victims services, child protection officials, and shelter workers to assist in their front-line capacity building. As well, Justice Canada and Status of Women Canada co-chair an interdepartmental working group on early and forced marriage, so-called honour-based violence, and female genital mutilation.
Our government also created regulations that make it much harder for people convicted of crimes that result in bodily harm against members of their family, or other particularly violent offences, to sponsor any family class member to come to Canada. Family violence is not tolerated in Canada under any circumstances, and individuals who do not respect Canadian law and commit serious crimes, regardless of the victim, should not benefit from the privilege of sponsorship. The regulatory changes now in force fixed a pre-existing gap and helped in the protection of sponsored individuals from family violence.
Our government has also brought in new measures in recent years to deter foreign nationals from entering into marriages of convenience to gain permanent resident status in Canada. This includes two-year conditional permanent resident status for certain sponsored spouses. However, because of concerns that conditional status could increase the vulnerability of sponsored spouses who are in abusive relationships, who may be reluctant to seek help out of fear that it will negatively impact their status in Canada, the government put in an exception to this measure in instances where there is evidence of any abuse of a physical, sexual, psychological, or financial nature. This exception would include those who are victims of forced marriage. The exception also applies to situations where there is neglect, such as a failure to provide the necessities of life. This protects Canadians from marriages of convenience while ensuring that women are never put in unsafe situations because of regulations laid out in their own immigration system.
We have also put in place training and better resources to help front-line officers in processing requests for exceptions based on abuse or neglect and in handling sensitive information related to abusive situations.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada's settlement program provides funding to a variety of organizations offering programs and services that respond to the specific needs of permanent residents, including immigrant women and their families, who may find themselves in vulnerable situations. These settlement services are flexible and are designed to meet the diverse needs of newcomers, including women, by providing them with a range of practical supports, such as language training and child care, to help them integrate successfully in Canada.
While overseas, newcomers can access programs that help them understand their rights and responsibilities in Canada and that provide detailed labour market information so they can make informed decisions prior to their arrival.
Once in Canada, women also have access to a range of employment-related supports to help them build their skills to enter the workforce and/or to advance their careers. These are resources and supports that are critical in helping them reach their full potential in Canada.
While the government has done much so far, we know that even more needs to be done to protect these women in our immigration system. That is why it is critical that the measures in Bill S-7 are enacted expeditiously.
Over the past year, government officials, including the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and I, met with victims and advocates across the country to get insight into how to stop violence and abuse from occurring in our communities.
Before Bill S-7 was introduced, the minister spent a considerable amount of time meeting with representatives of organizations that provide services to immigrant women and with victims of abuse at a number of round table discussions across our great nation. These important discussions focused on domestic violence, polygamy, forced marriage, the immigration process, and how we can strengthen the protection of vulnerable women and girls. Through these discussions, the government learned many ways it can help address the problems stemming from barbaric cultural practices.
These discussions led to the introduction of Bill S-7, which we are debating today. If passed, its measures would strengthen our laws to protect Canadians and newcomers to Canada from barbaric cultural practices. The bill sends a clear message to anyone coming to Canada that such practices are unacceptable. Canada will promote the equality of men and women and will afford them equal protection and opportunity.
In the words of Tahir Gora, director general of the Canadian Thinkers' Forum:
Critics criticized the name of the bill, calling it a pretty loaded one.
However, our group believes in calling a spade a spade. Violence against women is an absolutely barbaric act. It must be addressed strongly. Forced marriages, polygamy, and honour killings happen every day around the globe under the guise of cultural practices. Should those cultural practices not be condemned? Calling a spade a spade should not be a political issue in a country like Canada where human rights guarantee equal rights to men and women.
Bill S-7 says, in no uncertain terms, to those in this country and those who wish to come here that we will not tolerate cultural traditions in Canada that deprive individuals of their human rights. Through the bill, we are standing up for immigrant women and girls who have come to Canada for a better life and are reinforcing Canada's values of human rights, democracy, justice, and the rule of law.
In Canada, all individuals, all women and girls, should be able to live a life free from intimidation, abuse, and violence. There is absolutely no circumstance that justifies abuse and violence against women and children.
The bill makes clear to anyone who may doubt how seriously Canada takes this issue that Canadians do not, under any circumstance, accept or allow the propagation, support, or enactment of barbaric cultural practices on Canadian soil.
As legislators, we must stand up for all victims of violence and abuse and take necessary action to prevent these practices from happening on Canadian soil. By ensuring the passage into law of the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act, we will be fulfilling this obligation. I strongly encourage all my hon. colleagues on all sides of the House to join me in enthusiastically supporting Bill S-7.