Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House once again to speak to Bill S-7, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
As the minister just said, the NDP does oppose this bill. In my speech, I will explain why it is important for all members of the House to oppose this bill if they really care about protecting women and victims of forced marriage, polygamy and early marriage.
I want to start by saying that the NDP supports the intent of this bill. I am making a point of mentioning this because a number of members have accused us of not supporting women or of not explicitly condemning violence against women. On the contrary, the NDP acknowledges that the crimes we have addressed in the debate on Bill S-7 are unacceptable, cruel and barbaric, if members insist on using that word. Forced marriage, polygamy, early marriage and honour crimes are all crimes that we must combat. I do not think the issue here is whether we recognize the seriousness of these crimes, but rather what is the best way to address them. I would even say that the issue is to determine which of the methods proposed in Bill S-7 could hurt victims. We really need to consider that. The consequences go beyond not having tools that are powerful enough; victims could end up being hurt. Today's debate is therefore very important. We need to listen to the many experts who work in the field and to the Criminal Code experts who raised some red flags and who told us that we needed to reconsider some aspects of this bill.
Some aspects of Bill S-7 are fine just the way they are, and the NDP is prepared to support them. However, at report stage, the NDP asked that four clauses be removed from the bill, which is not a lot. If the House had adopted the NDP's amendments, we would have voted in favour of Bill S-7. We agree with a number of measures that are included in the bill, for example, the fact that it sets a minimum age for marriage and makes officiating a forced marriage a criminal offence. The NDP is not opposed to such measures.
As I said earlier, there are four measures that need to be removed from this bill and examined more closely to ensure that they are not contrary to the intent of Bill S-7 and that they do not further penalize women in forced marriages, for example.
Bill S-7 was examined by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. Many experts came to testify. Experts, victims, women and men from all walks of life and with different areas of expertise appeared before us. It is unfortunate to see that, after being examined in the Senate, in committee and at report stage, Bill S-7 is still exactly the same as it was when it was first introduced. No amendments have been made. That is unbelievable. That brings into question the real purpose of examining bills in committee or even debating them here in the House of Commons. We have such a stubborn and ideological Conservative government. It presents bills that originated in the Senate and then makes us study them under time allocation. These are important bills that could give victims certain tools or even take away some of their power. These are fundamental issues that we need to seriously consider.
It is unbelievable that when the bill was being studied in committee, a vast majority of the witnesses told us that it had some significant flaws, but the bill is once again before us and the Conservatives did not agree to a single amendment. Some will say that there were consultations before the bill was introduced. That may be the case, but these consultations were done in private and the minister sent direct invitations. Many people would have liked to have participated in these consultations, but since they were not invited by the minister they were not able to speak. How did they choose the witnesses who participated in these consultations, and what was actually said? We will never know.
What is the real purpose of these consultations? I think they serve partisan purposes so that the Conservatives can promote themselves as a political party. One has to wonder.
I would now like to talk about some of the flaws in this bill. First there is the short title. This bill's offensive title is probably the first thing we heard the public talking about. I remind members that the short title of this bill is the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.
The long title is very specific, since it explicitly states what the bill would amend. The long title is An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. This is a clear title that accurately describes the nature of the bill.
Why did the government choose this short title? I repeat, the short title is the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.
What is the purpose of a short title? There are some doubts about the need for such a title. Quite frankly, we have to wonder why the Conservatives insist on moving ahead with this short title when it is controversial and risks alienating the key players we need to combat violence against women.
I would like to quote a few of the experts who appeared in committee and who called on the government to reconsider the title. Ms. Miville-Dechêne, president of Quebec's Conseil du statut de la femme, had this to say:
...we need communities to be with us and not against us. That is why the title of this legislation must absolutely be changed.
What she is trying to say, if I were to summarize her comments on the short title, is that having the words “barbaric” and “cultural” in the same title is offensive to some people, because they feel as though their entire culture is being described as barbaric.
I am sure that was not the Conservatives' intention, but if that is how it is interpreted by people on the ground and by communities and cultural groups, then we need to reconsider the matter, because we will not get anywhere with a title like that if it creates enemies.
Another expert shared the same opinion. Avvy Yao-Yao Go, the clinic director of Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said the following:
...Bill S-7 invokes racist stereotypes and fuels xenophobia towards certain racialized communities.
These people have eyes and ears on the ground because they work there every day. It is important to listen to them. Unfortunately, the government did not do so.
I will not spend any more time talking about the short title because there are other aspects of this bill that are also quite problematic. Let us look at those pertaining to forced marriage.
As I said earlier, the NDP is not opposed to making the celebration of a forced marriage a criminal offence. In short, if officiants, priests, imams and others knowingly celebrate a forced marriage, they could be charged under the Criminal Code. That makes sense to us.
Things get dangerous because Bill S-7 also contains a measure under which the people who attend a forced marriage or know that it may be a forced marriage can be charged under the Criminal Code. That is a problem.
Let us be clear. The NDP is not opposed to criminalizing an act as unacceptable as forced marriage. However, the question is what to do about it and how to proceed.
One of the basic problems with forced marriage is that it happens in secret and is accepted by people who will not seek help or speak out against such a practice. If the 100, 200 or 500 wedding guests could face criminal charges, then how are we going to do anything about this culture of secrecy? How are we going to encourage people to come forward so that criminal charges can be laid?
Many experts told us that this was a dangerous way of doing things. I would like to quote Dr. Lamboley, who did her doctoral thesis on the very specific subject of the express criminalization of forced marriage in Canada. This expert conducted an in-depth examination of the practices that exist elsewhere and the resources currently available in Canada, and she came to a conclusion on the issue. Everyone here will agree that her opinion should at least be taken into consideration.
One of the things she said was that:
...the express criminalization of this type of conjugal union does not appear to be a solution.
Why? She said that, first, we do not fully understand the problem and we need to understand the problem before we can address it. For example, we do not know the extent of the problem here in Canada. That would be important to know. We do not have a specific enough common definition of what constitutes forced marriage and what exactly it is that we want to punish. We need to understand all these issues before we go ahead with solutions.
She also said:
Canada is not without means to face this issue already, to the extent that it is possible to intervene legally under the criminal system to sanction reprehensible actions that arise in a large number of situations in forced marriages (threats, aggression, sexual assault, kidnapping, confinement, false marriages, extortion, intimidation, battery, murder, attempted murder, and so on).
All these measures are already in the Criminal Code. She said that if we currently do not understand the phenomenon and if we do not put anything new in place to help victims, then criminalization is not the way to go. She also reminded us that in the United Kingdom, victims are currently allowed to choose a civil process if they wish. Indeed, a victim can choose between a criminal process and a civil process.
We need to understand that the person is the victim of her social circle and her family. A young 18-year-old woman could find it very intimidating to file a complaint and send her parents, her brothers and sisters and members of her community to prison. If she were given the choice of a civil process, we could then give her the power to choose, to report the situation and put an end to it, without being afraid of losing all contact with the people around her. Even if this woman is a victim of her social circle, she may not be ready to cut all ties with her family and alienate her broader community.
If the goal is to end abuse and violence, criminalizing all those involved in the marriage may not be the only way to do it. Giving the victim the option and the power to choose a civil process may be another way of stopping this abuse.
Another case we need to keep in mind as we study Bill S-7 is what happened in Denmark. That country passed a law similar to Bill S-7 about five or six years ago. Since then, no criminal charges have been laid in relation to actions such as forced marriage. What does that tell us? It suggest that perhaps the concerns of researchers and experts on the ground are justified and that if we go ahead with measures like the criminalization in Bill S-7, the problem of forced marriage will go even further underground. In Denmark, they wanted to help victims by passing measures to criminalize anyone who attends forced marriages. What was the outcome? Radio silence. Victims did not want to report the crime and go through the legal process.
I think that if we want to introduce something here, we should look at what other countries have done and the results they have seen. Doing so amplifies our concerns and reservations about Bill S-7 as written.
I would now like to quote a few experts on the ground. I already quoted a researcher who did her Ph.D. on this subject, but there are other exceptional people who work with victims every day and who have raised the red flag once again. Also regarding the provisions on forced marriage in Bill S-7, Deepa Mattoo, staff lawyer and acting executive director at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, had this to say:
We stand for victims and survivors of gender-based violence, whose voices have told us, time and time again, that they would not come forward if it meant criminal sanctions or deportation of their families.
Victims right here in Canada have told us that if it meant that family members would be sent to prison and deported, they would not report anything to the police.
It seems to me that if we will not listen to the experts, we should at least listen to the victims we are trying to help. Coming up with a solution and saying that that is the only solution, without listening to women and victims, shows a macho and sexist attitude. It is like saying that we here in Parliament know what violence against women is all about and we are going to tell them how to solve the problem, but we refuse to listen to the women who have experienced the violence. That is a ridiculous attitude to take.
Another expert, Naila Butt, executive director of the Social Services Network, said:
Criminalization of forced marriage, without the much needed institutional support for victims, would only further alienate and harm those facing forced marriage and gender-based violence....
In short, not only is criminalization dangerous, but when there is a lack of services and support, it can be disastrous. The victims must know their rights, know where to go for help and be supported all the way through when they decide to file charges or simply embark on a journey of personal healing. At present, that is not the case. If we really want to do something for these women, we can provide more resources to ensure that they get the help they need.
Another element of this bill concerns polygamy. This bill would allow for the deportation and the inadmissibility to Canada of persons who have practised or are practising polygamy or who are suspected of possibly practising polygamy in the future. That is very broad, and it does give rise to several problems.
Ms. Desloges, a lawyer, appeared before the committee and said that the definition of polygamy is not clear or specific enough to move forward with such a measure. In short, what is polygamy? What definition of polygamy is used to deport someone or prohibit them from entering Canada? Not even that is clear. Before moving forward with such a measure, we should at least know who is guilty of what.
Even if the definition were clearer, that does not mean this measure would be adapted. The concern is that people applying to immigrate will be discriminated against. Immigration applicants could be denied entry to Canada if immigration officers suspect that they will practise polygamy in the future. There is a risk of adding a layer of discrimination to how our immigrants and tourists are selected.
What is more, are only men polygamists or do women practise polygamy as well? If our goal is to protect women who are victims of polygamy, but we include a measure in the bill that might get women who are victims of polygamy deported, then what is the point? If we really want to protect women, then we need to take another look at this measure and ensure that women who say they are victims of polygamy are not deported with their polygamous husband.
On that, I would like to quote Professor Rupaleem Bhuyan from the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto:
I am most concerned with how this bill increases discretionary powers among immigration officers.
A little further on she also says:
The low burden of proof may lead to racist discrimination against immigrants from particular regions of the world.... This provision would also put women who are spouses of polygamous men at risk of being deported or being separated from their children.
These are just some of the concerns about the polygamy measure. Since I do not have much time, anyone who is interested can go see the evidence from the committee's studies.
If Bill S-7 is not the way to go, what is? As I said in my introduction, the NDP supports the intention of the bill. We need to do something for these female victims. A single crime is one too many. We need to implement good measures that will really help women, not hurt them.
The NDP has given the government several proposals, but the government has not responded yet. Maybe that will change. For example, the NDP wants to get rid of conditional permanent resident status, which causes too many women to fear deportation if they report their spouse's violence. They get help and disappear. They change their names and live in Canada with no official status because they are afraid to report the violence and risk deportation. Conditional permanent residence is part of the problem.
Another thing we need to do is to ensure that women are aware of their rights and the resources at their disposal. We can do more to ensure that before women even come to Canada they are aware of their rights and know what services are available. Furthermore, newcomer women are not the only ones who need this information. Often, women who have been in Canada for several generations are not aware of all of their rights. If we truly want to do something for these women, we can take action and we can do better.