Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today in support of Bill S-7, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act. I would like to take this opportunity to respond to some of the arguments that have been raised in opposition to Bill S-7.
Members of the opposition have claimed that Bill S-7 is unnecessary because the criminal law already covers early and forced marriages, and is sufficient to respond to these heinous forms of violence. They also claim that these proposed amendments will have unintended consequences on victims because the proposals will criminalize early and forced marriage.
We have heard many members in the House condemn these forms of gender-based violence as serious violations of the human rights of women and girl. We have heard about the serious harms inflicted upon women and girls forced to marry against their will. Our government will not sit back when we know that women and girls in Canada are being forced into marriage or being taken abroad, sometimes under false pretenses of attending someone else's wedding, only to find that they are the ones getting married despite their lack of consent.
These are completely unacceptable practices. They are an affront to the values of our country, to the freedom of choice, to the right to be protected from violence and to the principle of gender equality. It is our government that is standing up for the victims of these horrific forms of violence by ensuring that these victims and law enforcement have all of the tools they need to prevent these marriages from happening in the first place.
Yes, there are already criminal offences to address aspects of early and forced marriage, but there are also some significant gaps in the law. This bill is about filling those gaps to ensure that our strong justice system is enabled with responses that are even more robust. In addition, the bill provides a range of responses to these forms of violence that are specifically designed to prevent them from even occurring.
I will now take some time to address some gaps in our current laws.
First, there is currently no criminal offence that addresses child or early marriage where force or threat of force was not used prior to this marriage. Some claim that the current criminal provisions relating to the age of consent for sexual activity is enough to address early marriage. That is simply inaccurate.
The current Criminal Code provision that sets out the minimum age for sexual activity, section 150.1, is 16 years of age, with exceptions for those who are close in age and have explicit exemptions for married persons. In other words, right now a person under the age of 16 who is married to someone considerably older is not covered by this protective provision.
Permit me to also explain why this exemption for marriage currently exists. It exists because there is no national minimum age for marriage below which marriages are automatically illegal. Apart from the federal minimum age of 16 for marriages in Quebec, there is currently no federal legislation setting out the minimum age for marriage in the rest of Canada.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, this leaves the old federal common law to fill the void, which is unclear, but appears to set the minimum age at 14 for boys and 12 for girls. It is therefore possible that a child under the age of 16 can currently be married in Canada, except in Quebec. It is also possible, on the basis of private international law rules, that a Canadian child under the age of 16 can be taken out of the country and married in a country where such child marriages are legally solemnized, and upon that child's return to Canada, the marriage is currently recognized as legally valid, except in Quebec. This is because there is no federal legislation that renders a child legally incapable of consenting to the marriage. This bill would address that gap.
By introducing a national minimum age of 16, below which no child can legally consent to marriage, the bill would not only prohibit those underage marriages from taking place in Canada, but it would also have the effect of rendering underage marriages of Canadian children abroad invalid because a child lacked the legal capacity to marry.
When Ms. Kathryn Marshall, a lawyer and equity activist, spoke at committee, she clarified:
We can't simply rely on the common law. The common law is something that's very much open to interpretation; that's the nature of it. It should be codified. It's extremely important to do so.
She explained that codifying the national minimum age of marriage is an important step in ensuring that no young woman or girl is forced into marriage.
The current gaps in the law related to early marriage are significant and warrant remedial legislative reform. Right now, the actual underage or forced marriage ceremony itself does not currently constitute a criminal offence and the provision in question does not refer to underage or forced marriage. Under the existing provisions, the authorities would need to be able to prove that a sexual or violent offence was intended to be committed abroad.
As a result, we need to have anchoring offences in the Criminal Code that are founded on the harms associated with underage and forced marriages themselves, as distinct from the harm of physical or sexual violence. That is why the bill would amend the Criminal Code to make it clear that anyone who actively participates in a marriage ceremony with full knowledge that one or both of the participants is under the age of 16 or is marrying against their will may be criminally liable.
These two new offences would act as the touchstone for amendments to the provision related to the removal of a child from Canada so that the authorities would have the tools to stop someone from taking a child out of the country for an underage or enforced marriage.
These two new offences would also act as the basis for the creation of a new peace bond designed to prevent underage and forced marriages from taking place without having to lay a criminal charge.
This speaks to the second gap in the current laws to address forced marriage, what I would refer to as the prevention gap.
This government is aware that many victims of forced marriage are reluctant to see their family members criminally prosecuted. This is something we see in all forms of family violence, be it intimate partner violence, child abuse, or elder abuse. Victims need more tools to prevent these forms of violence from happening in the first place. That is exactly what the bill would do.
These two new anchoring offences of underage and forced marriage were specifically designed so that victims could use the peace bonds to prevent these marriages from happening and so that the authorities could stop someone from removing a child from the country to commit these crimes. These are necessary tools to fill the gaps in the current law.
The bill would make it clear to perpetrators that we will not tolerate abuse, such as so-called honour killings, early or forced marriages, or any other type of gender-based violence. We are taking steps to strengthen our laws to help ensure that no young girl or woman in Canada becomes a victim to early or forced marriage.
Instead of voting for this important legislation and actually taking action to protect young women and girls, the opposition continues to play politics. It is time for the games to end and for us all in this House to stand up for women and children.
I urge that all my colleagues join with me in supporting this important bill at third reading.