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Age of Consent bill rattles along political rollercoaster

Witnesses wrap up; will bill pass before March 1?

The race is on. With just four days remaining to pass the Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill, the Senate review plows on.

Today, Canada’s attention shifts to the Feb 26 budget. But in a small boardroom, the Senate’s legal affairs committee heads into debate on Bill C-2, which includes a provision to raise the age of consent. The bill, unofficially referred to as the Tackling Violent Crime Bill, includes legislation previously introduced: the three strikes rule for violent offenders, a reverse onus for bail, increased firearms penalties, and  new rules for drug impaired driving. After the committee, the bill must return to the Senate for a final vote before receiving royal assent.

The Senate committee heard its last witness Feb 25 — BC Civil Liberties Association boardmember Kirk Tousaw. He was one of only a handful of the more than 50 presenters to mention the elephant in the room.

“I urge you to stand strong against pressure for haste,” says Tousaw.

Earlier this month, the House of Commons set a Mar 1 deadline for Senate approval of C-2. Conservative MPs  threatened to force an election unless the bill is rammed through the second chamber of the house. Last fall, a controversial decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament meant that many bills including four reintroduced as C-2 had to begin again from scratch. Senators called the deadline “bizarre”, but all parties now appear to have their marching orders: pass the bill by Mar 1.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Police organizations and fundamentalist Christians agree about the age of consent: it should be raised from 14 to 16, both say.

The Senate committee heard from REAL Women of Canada on Feb 22.

“We, by virtue of this legislation, are inviting young women to free themselves from the risk of unwanted pregnancy, the risk of contracting an STD, the risk of contracting AIDS,” says Angela Costigan of REAL Women. “What can be forgotten in such a discussion is that freedom comes from not having sexual activity before one can provide for the natural outcomes of such activity.”

Costigan supports the discriminatory age of consent for anal sex
which is 18 because “anal sex is an extraordinarily risky activity,” she says. She calls frictional tearing which can occur during anal sex a “superhighway” to infection.

Costigan was joined by the Salvation Army and the Evangelical Christian Fellowship.

Costigan and Salvation Army representative Grant Effer submitted that the age of consent should be raised to 18.

A fourth Christian group
the Church Council on Justice and Correction opposed the bill. Lorianne Berzins, representing the council, got a cool reception from the other panelists, but senators picked up on her points during questioning. She spoke about the bill as a whole, rather than focussing on the age of consent provision.

“Because we criminalize things that are really social problems, we have a mess on our hands,” says Berzins.

Relationships with teens that are exploitive, where there is a power imbalance or the younger person is in a position of trust, are already illegal. But that isn’t enough for Don Hutchison from the Evangelical Christian Fellowship.

“The difficulty is obtaining evidence that proves a relationship is sexually exploitive,” says Hutchison. “It’s very difficult to adduce proof when the young person is saying, ‘I consented.'”

For the police too, raising the age of consent appears to be about making existing crimes easier to prosecute. Kim Scanlan spoke to the Senate committee Feb  25. She spoke about human trafficking, child pornography and internet luring.

“It would immediately increase the safety of young people,” Scanlan says.

Scanlan was joined by RCMP officer Robert Frizell from the National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre. He painted a similar picture. But Liberal Senator Joan Fraser pointed out that “those provisions are already there.”

“Luring was given as an example,” Frizell says. “[Luring] is not something most people would read and be able to understand.”

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

However, it was Tousaw from the BCCLA that pointed out what Canada stands to lose by passing the bill.

“While the bill is ostensibly tailored to adults, the effect will be to criminalize youth sexuality,” he says.

He also pointed to Egale Canada, Canada’s national queer lobby group, which spoke against raising the age of consent. Since sex laws are disproportionately used as weapons against consensual sexual activity between gay men, this will have a “differential impact on sexual minorities.”

Tousaw advocates “social guidance, not legislative control.”

The Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee resumes Feb 26 at 10am for clause-by-clause analysis of C-2.