Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in support of the motion put forward by the hon. member for Mississauga South.
It is incredibly disturbing that so many women and girls around the world continue to be victims of the inhumane practice of early and forced marriages. Right now, it is estimated that one in three girls in the developing world are married before their 18th birthdays. Disturbingly, some are married as young as five years old. This practice is harmful to girls in several ways.
Early or forced marriages hinder most girls' chances of completing an education, which puts them at even greater risk of violence and isolation. Many girls who enter early or forced marriages also typically have children at a very young age and because their bodies are not yet ready for child birth, it is estimated that approximately 70,000 girls die in labour each and every year.
Clearly, early and forced marriages are very harmful practices that threaten the lives and futures of girls around the world with devastating consequences. In fact, they are violations of human rights that often lead to social isolation, poverty and violence. This barbarism is unacceptable to Canadians. We must do whatever we can to strengthen the protection of vulnerable women in Canada and to support the rights of immigrant and newcomer women in the strongest possible way.
The motion we are debating today would help to do so by disallowing marriages by proxy and other non-in-person marriages in the immigration system. A marriage by proxy is where one or even both participants are not present at the ceremony and are represented by another person. Other forms of this type of marriage can be conducted by telephone, fax or Internet for the purposes of immigration to Canada.
While such marriages are not legally permitted to be performed in Canada, they may be recognized for the purposes of Canadian immigration law when conducted in jurisdictions outside of Canada where these types of marriages are legal. Some visa offices around the world regularly encounter marriages by proxy as it is a cultural practice in some parts of the world.
The sad truth is that these practices can be used to force individuals, usually women and girls, into non-consensual marriages. Should this motion pass, Citizenship and Immigration Canada will amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations to exclude proxy, telephone and similar forms of marriage for immigration purposes across all immigration streams. In addition, policy and operational guidelines will be updated to assist immigration officers in better detecting such forms of marriage.
Of course, we also recognize there are cases when a marriage by proxy is valid and there will be exceptions in the regulations for these valid types of marriages. Sponsored spouses who decide to marry by proxy will be encouraged to remarry in an in-person ceremony that meets the laws of the country where it is performed to have their marriage accepted for immigration purposes. They can also apply as common law or conjugal partners. Humanitarian and compassionate provisions may also be taken into consideration.
However, the focus of this motion is the increasing concern that some marriages by proxy, telephone, fax, or Internet can make it easier for someone to be forced into a marriage. In addressing the issue of forced marriage in our immigration system, let us also be clear about the intent of this motion. It is not an indictment of arranged marriages. An arranged marriage is a marriage in which both parties have the free will to accept or decline the arrangement.
On the other hand, all forced marriages are, by nature, arranged and when the consent of one of both parties to the marriage is denied, tools such as proxy marriage, telephone marriage and these other means of solemnization may be used to facilitate the forced marriage.
As I have already stated, some of our visa offices have encountered cases of spousal sponsorships that were, in fact, cases of forced marriage facilitated by proxy. This is not how Canada's spousal sponsorship program is intended to work.
Although this barbaric practice of forced marriage is illegal in Canada, we must further strengthen the integrity of our immigration system to ensure we uphold and strengthen the protections of vulnerable women. This is why our government is taking additional steps to ensure it does not occur on our soil.
As we know, the introduction of Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act, would further strengthen the protections for vulnerable women, including those in our immigration system.
Among other measures, it would amend the Criminal Code to further prevent forced or underage marriage. These measures would criminalize: knowingly officiating at an underage or forced marriage; knowingly and actively participating in a wedding ceremony in which one party is marrying another against his or her will, or is under the age of 16 years old; and removing a minor from Canada for a forced or underage marriage.
In Canada, there is no national minimum age for marriage. Only in Quebec is the minimum age set at 16 years. In other parts of Canada, if members can even believe it, the common law minimum age varies from as low as 7 years old to 14 years. Setting a national minimum age of 16 years for marriage would make it clear that underage marriage is unacceptable in Canada and will not be tolerated here.
Other proposed amendments would create a new peace bond that would give courts the power to impose conditions on an individual when there is reasonable grounds to fear that a forced marriage or marriage under the age of 16 will otherwise occur. Such a peace bond could be used to require the surrender of a passport as well as to prevent a child from being taken outside of Canada.
Other amendments to the Civil Marriage Act proposed in Bill S-7 would require those getting married to give their free and enlightened consent to the marriage and would codify the requirements of the dissolution of any previous marriage.
Through these and other actions, our government is sending a strong message. Our country will not tolerate cultural traditions in Canada that deprive individuals of their human rights. Our government will continue to stand up for all victims of violence and abuse, and take necessary action to prevent these practices from happening on Canadian soil.
I would like to conclude by highlighting some of the investments that Status of Women has made, giving communities the tools to address harmful cultural practices: since 2007, over $70 million for projects to prevent and end violence against women and girls; of this amount, $2.8 million has been invested in projects that address harmful, cultural practices, such as violence committed in the name of so-called honour, forced genital mutilation and forced marriage; the elimination of child, early and forced marriage was a key priority for the Minister of Status of Women to raise as she led Canada's delegation to the 58th meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York earlier this year.
I support these measures and this motion. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this important debate and I would like to thank my hon. colleague as well.