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16 senators break ranks, vote against C-2

Crime bill passes 19-16, with 31 abstentions

Bill Siksay must feel a little less lonely.

Siksay, the only MP in the House of Commons to vote against the omnibus crime bill, was joined yesterday by 16 senators who also oppose its provisions.

All Liberals of the subcommittee examining the bill opposed it Feb 27, when the bill was brought before the Senate for its final reading. Several other Liberal senators joined them, but 31 — including Liberal Senate leader Céline Hervieux-Payette abstained, ensuring its passage. The bill now awaits royal assent.

James Cowan is a Liberal senator and a member of the legal and constitutional affairs committee. They saw over 50 witnesses in a week as they rushed to pass the bill before the House of Commons’ Mar 1 deadline.

“This bill, grandiosely styled ‘tackling violent crime,’ is at its root in many respects a simplistic, ideological piece of political propaganda,” says Cowan. “Once again, the Harper government is more focussed on appearing to make positive change than on producing legislation that will actually make that change.”

It’s widely believed that Hervieux-Payette was at loggerheads with Liberal leader Stephane Dion over C-2.

Yesterday’s vote represents the latest in a string of directives from Dion where Liberals sit out votes they oppose rather than bring down the government.

Still that didn’t stop Liberals in the Senate from having a kick at the can. They argued that two aspects reverse onus for bail and mandatory minimum sentencing are not good laws and vulnerable to charter challenge.

“One is left to conclude that a large part of the legislative regime proposed by this bill is driven by the rightwing, ideological distrust of our judicial system held by this government,” Cowan continues. “Canada has a highly qualified and widely respected judiciary. This legislation removes much of the judicial discretion that has been the hallmark of our sentencing regime.”

The bill also includes a provision to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16. At Senate hearings, queer and youth-led groups opposed the provisions.

Liberal senator Joan Fraser tabled the legal affairs committee report before the final vote. It detailed “serious concerns” with C-2.

“Many young persons are now and will continue to be sexually active,” says the report. “It is in their best interests to have access to proper health care and sexual health services. Witnesses expressed concern that, because of certain mandatory abuse reporting laws, doctors, nurses, sexual health counselors and social workers may be required to report their “illegal activities”, thus breaking confidentiality with young people who confide in them. Because of this, young people may be much less likely to seek out sexual health services.”

Outspoken Liberal senator Sharon Carstairs, who voiced early concerns about raising the age of consent, has been absent for the last two weeks. Fraser told Xtra.ca Feb 20 that Carstairs was out of the country, attending a meeting of the Inter Parliamentary Union human rights committee in Sri Lanka. On Feb 26, Fraser said Carstairs was on her way back to Canada, but that she had indicated she was ill. Repeated calls to Carstairs’ office were not returned.

Still, senators appeared to be onside to strike the discriminatory age of consent for anal sex. That reflects two years of lobbying and witness appearances on C-2 and the previous age of consent bill, C-22. Fraser’s report echoes concerns raised by Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, the Canadian Bar Association, queer lobby group Egale Canada and the Age of Consent Committee.

“We are concerned that Bill C-2 does not address the different age of consent to anal intercourse,” it continues. “That age is set at 18 years of age, unless the people involved are husband and wife. This higher age of consent has been declared to be unconstitutional by the Courts of Appeal of Ontario and Quebec, amongst others. If the age of consent is going to be raised to 16, then the same age should apply to all forms of sexuality. Thus, section 159 of the Criminal Code should be repealed.”

While larger political forces deterred senators from making changes to the bill, vigorous witness dissent appears to have bolstered their criticism of C-2. Several senators quoted from testimony they had heard at committee.

Read the full Senate debate here

Read the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee report on Bill C-2