POLITICS

'Barbaric cultural practices' bill hearing leads to snarky exchange

12/04/2014 12:51 EST | Updated 02/03/2015 05:59 EST
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander appeared before the Senate committee on human rights Thursday morning to advocate for S-7, his proposed zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act.

The legislation, introduced in early November, would:

- Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, making permanent residents or temporary residents inadmissible if they practice polygamy in Canada.

- Amend the Civil Marriage Act to ban marriage for anyone under the age of 16.

- Change the Criminal Code to impose a maximum five-year prison term on anyone who "celebrates, aids or participates" in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons is being married against their will or is not of legal age.

- Tackle the issue of honour killings by amending Criminal Code provisions that allow for the defence of provocation, which reduces the charge of murder to manslaughter where the accused acted "in the heat of passion." Perceived insult to family honour could be included among things that would make one lose control.

Conservatives say these practices are incompatible with Canadian values.

Because polygamy and/or child marriage is legal in dozens of countries, Alexander has said there are "at least hundreds" of immigrants to Canada who are in these kind of relationships. 

Who's 'barbaric'?

Senator Art Eggleton took issue with the bill's title, asking if it by extension the government was calling the cultural communities where the practices took place barbaric.

"Are you calling those people barbarians?" he asked Alexander.

"The community at which this bill is addressed is the community of those who perpetrate violence against women. It knows no bounds of culture, nationality, language," Alexander replied, adding the issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women could also be included.

"Forced marriages, honour killings, polygamy... are already part of the criminal law of this country," Eggleton said. "Why is this necessary?"

"Because they're still happening," the minister said.

Eggleton asked why the government didn't prosecute them under the existing law, and Alexander said the existing law was not sufficient.

Alexander added that his government's strong measures over the last eight years have led to the crime and murder rate dropping "as quickly as they are in Canada."

Successful examples?

Eggleton noted the Conservatives had been in government for eight years but still hadn't got a conviction on polygamy.

"We're very proud to say that we've had arrests and charges laid for the first time in over 100 years in this country, and it never happened under a Liberal government, not once," Alexander replied.

The arrests precede the current legislation up for debate.

Alexander struggled to name any cases where the motive of honour killing had successfully been used as a justifiable part of the defence in the courts.

Eggleton said S-7 is based on there having been cases where the courts had recognized an insult to honour as a legitimate excuse for violence, and "there is no case."

"The defence of honour as a basis for provocation has been used dozens of times in Canada and its very existence under our criminal law weakens the defence that women and girls deserve to have in their own homes from their own relatives. We should not be allowing there to be any concept of family honour, however construed, as a mitigating factor for the murder of a family member," Alexander said.

"We never have allowed it. The court has never accepted it," Eggleton replied.

"It could be used in the future and its very existence sends a message to men... that their honour is somehow at stake and could be used to defend them in a court of law from the charge of murder," Alexander said.