Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to speak in support of Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.
In October 2013, our government committed to ensuring that early and forced marriage does not take place on Canadian soil. Bill S-7 delivers on that promise. This bill proposes to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code in order to enhance the existing protections against harmful and violent practices that are perpetrated primarily against women and girls. I would like to take this opportunity to situate this bill in the context of the many substantive measures that this government has taken to address violence against women and girls in Canada.
As Canada's Minister of Citizenship and Immigration explained before the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, all violent acts committed against women and girls are unacceptable in our democratic Canada. Our government has taken and continues to take action to address various forms of violence against women and girls. Bill S-7 supplements Canada's robust responses to violence against women and girls by addressing some areas where gaps have been identified, such as the response to early and forced marriage, and strengthens the legislative tools in relation to other forms of gender-based violence, such as polygamy and so-called honour killings, as well as spousal homicides. This bill addresses certain forms of violence against women and girls that reflect antiquated notions of women as property or as mere vessels of family honour and reputation. These notions are clearly inconsistent with fundamental Canadian values of equality between men and women.
The zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act introduces important legislative measures that would protect potential and actual victims of early and forced marriage. Bill S-7 proposes to set the absolute minimum age of marriage at 16 in the Civil Marriage Act, and to codify in that same act the requirements that a marriage involve free and enlightened consent and that all previous marriages be dissolved prior to entering into a new marriage. This bill also introduces changes to the Criminal Code to criminalize active participation in an underage or forced marriage and to criminalize removing a child from Canada for these same harmful purposes.
Moreover, Bill S-7 expands the peace bond regime in the Criminal Code to provide for a new court order designed to prevent an underage or forced marriage from taking place in Canada, or to prevent a child from being taken out of the country to be forced into a marriage. In addition, Bill S-7 proposes to limit the defence of provocation, as we have heard a number of times this afternoon, in the Criminal Code so it could not be raised in cases involving so-called honour killings and in many spousal homicides where the alleged provocation often consists of verbal or offensive but otherwise lawful behaviour.
Finally, this bill puts forward important changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that would specify that a permanent resident or foreign national is inadmissible if he or she practises polygamy in Canada.
I would like to take a few moments to point out how the proposed amendments in this bill would align Canada with many like-minded countries around the world.
First, in relation to early marriage, Bill S-7 introduces a minimum age of 16 below which marriages could no longer be legally conducted in Canada even with parental or court consent. There has been some misunderstanding about this provision of the bill, so let me be perfectly clear. The free age of marriage in Canada, or the age at which a child becomes an adult and can give consent to marry on his or her own with no additional requirements, is 18 or 19 years of age, depending on the province or territory where the marriage takes place. Bill S-7 does not change this. Instead, Bill S-7 proposes to legislate in relation to the absolute minimum age of legal capacity for marriage, which is a matter of federal jurisdiction under the Constitution. Currently, federal law sets age 16 as the lowest age for marriage only in the province of Quebec. Elsewhere in Canada, as there is no federal legislation, the old pre-Confederation common law applies. This bill proposes to close that loophole and set a national floor at 16, below which marriages may not be legally conducted.
If we compare Canada with similarly situated countries, we see that many have set the lowest age for anyone to marry at age 16, including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Norway. This is what Bill S-7 proposes to do.
Several other like-minded countries have set 18 as the age at which a person can marry without the requirement for consent from their parents or the courts. These countries have no absolute minimum age of marriage: Belgium, France, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and most of the United States. This is similar to the current law in Canada.
It is important to point out that many countries cited as setting the minimum age for marriage at age 18 actually have a similar legal structure to that of Canada. They set age 18 as the free age, or the age of majority, meaning that a person can marry without any other person's consent.
This is subject to a number of exceptions where a person below the age of 18 can marry with some form of additional consent or approval, and so it does not represent the absolute minimum age. In fact, very few countries have set their lowest age for anyone to marry at age 18. Switzerland is the only similarly situated country that we are aware of to have done so.
Bill S-7 addresses certain gaps in the range of existing measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls in Canada. Our Conservative government is taking steps to strengthen our laws and to help ensure that no young woman or girl in Canada becomes a victim of early or forced marriage, polygamy, so-called honour-based violence, or any other form of harmful cultural practice.
I would be pleased to take any questions about any of these other important aspects of the bill as well.
I urge my colleagues to support this bill and align Canada with like-minded countries that are grappling with similar forms of violence against women and girls.
As a former member of the parliamentary Standing Committee on the Status of Women, I am just so proud to be able to support this very important bill. It would affect many hundreds of young girls going forward. These girls live in Canada and perhaps might have backgrounds different from my daughter's and her experiences growing up, but I think we have a responsibility to protect them from violence and barbaric cultural practices.