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Age Of Consent Committee submission on Bill C-22

Standing Committee On Justice And Human Rights, March 2007

The government of Canada is considering raising the basic legal age of consent for sexual activity from 14 to 16 years of age. We, the members of the Age of Consent Committee believe it to be misguided and therefore oppose this legislation.

The Age of Consent Committee is a youth-led citizens group composed of youth, students and adults from all walks of life. We formed in Toronto in early 2006 in order to evaluate the proposal by Parliament to raise the age of consent. We are united in an effort to oppose this legislation. We believe this legislation does not address the issues that it purports to and also that its social, legal and political effect will be an overall negative one for both youth and adults.

There are many reasons why we oppose this legislation. Fundamentally, we believe that a law and order agenda which criminalizes youthful sexual expression is a misguided approach. This age of consent legislation is designed to regulate consensual sexual activity. There are already provisions which prohibit and punish non-consensual sex and situations that may be deemed exploitative introduced under Bill C-2 enacted into law in July 2005. We oppose attempts to criminalize youthful sexual expression. By relying on criminal law, politicians undermine the idea that comprehensive sexuality education provides for real protection and the expansion of awareness, agency, and power to make the right decisions in the lives of youth.

We strongly believe that youth have a right to comprehensive sexuality education that looks at sexuality in a social context, that respects diversity and that seeks to empower youth about choices and knowledge about the potential dangers and pleasures of sex. Criminalizing youthful sexual expression not only sends a very cynical and contradictory message, but also contributes to the ongoing inequalities that youth face with regard to self-determination and social and sexual agency. We believe that the youth of Canada would be ill served by the enactment of this legislation and deserve better than criminalization and cynicism. We fundamentally oppose the intervention of criminal law into an area of our lives that woefully neglects the special character of sexuality and gender as based on awareness and respect, negotiation and recognition of differences. The use of criminal law and the dread that this evokes will cause more harm than good. The proposed law may have a chilling effect on youth attempting to access sexual health services. Moreover, it may hinder the efforts of sexual health workers to provide full, comprehensive sexuality education if they fear the intervention of the law.

We challenge the single-minded pursuit of a law and order agenda in this area, promoted under the language of “protection.” We believe that the attempt to raise the age of consent with the intent of protection fundamentally contradicts other legislative measures which would see more youth tried as adults in criminal court. We see these forms of legislative actions as giving contradictory messages. Youth are deemed vulnerable in regards to sexuality and at the same time are increasingly seen as adults when they commit crimes.

We feel that raising the age of consent would contradict the stated purpose of the Justice Committee which is to promote human rights. We note the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Canada in 1991 deems education, in articles 28 and 29, as an inalienable right in order to prepare the child for responsible life in a free society. We note that comprehensive sexuality education is an indispensable part of preparing young people for the challenges of social life and responsible citizenship. Additionally, we note that raising the age of consent would also contravene Article 12 which indicates that children and youth are assured the right to express their views in all matters affecting them and to be consulted in decisions that affect their lives. We think that there has not been adequate consultation with youth on this proposed law. We also feel that the introduction of the age of consent legislation could be challenged under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which prohibits discrimination based on age.

The motivation for this bill is based on illogical hysteria about cases that are already illegal or blown out of proportion (for example, internet predators). The reality, of course, is that the majority of sexual abuse occurs with those whom the child is most familiar where age of consent laws have so far been unable to protect young people. The evidence simply does not support an age of consent increase to protect young people from the abuse which is actually occurring and already illegal. We note that real protection is afforded by providing comprehensive sexuality education which locates sexuality within a social context, provides real-life negotiation skills, thereby building confidence and greater awareness and discernment in youth about potential sexual partners and situations. We feel that this approach is commensurate with principles of equity and justice which is fundamental to the image of Canadian society. By removing decision-making power from youth and paternalistically imposing a set of criminal sanctions, the Canadian government is sending a strong contradictory message that says that youth should not think for themselves but instead depend on the judgment of adults. Ironically, the message of reliance on the judgment of adults is one of the very reasons why youth may find themselves in potentially exploitative relationships which prevent them from developing negotiation skills and promotes an uncritical deference to adult authority.

The members of the Age of Consent Committee know, from present and recent personal experience, how youth are marginalized and their voices rarely heard in mainstream political processes. We note, with anger and resentment, that pushing forward this law, which has admitted virtually no consultation with the communities of youth which are directly affected, sends a cynical political message about the importance of youth participation under the present government.

We would also like to stress the importance of recognizing diversity among youth communities and the ongoing persistent inequalities which continue to silence and marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified youth in schools, families and religious institutions. Queer youth are often disproportionately targeted by authorities when their romantic relationships are discovered by disapproving and homophobic parents, teachers and other authority figures. We are very concerned that the choices queer youth make will be subject to additional scrutiny and criminalization due to prevailing homophobia. It is not uncommon for queer youth to seek out relationships with older partners as they can provide much needed recognition and support in a context where many of their peers are still closeted due to prevailing homophobia in schools and families. Such age discrepant relationships are not always exploitative or harmful; in fact they can be beneficial and this recognition is an important one in the lives of queer and gender-variant youth. This proposed law would further isolate queer youth.

The Age of Consent Committee strongly believes that the age of consent should not be raised. We note another related area of law which instead deserves your urgent attention. Several jurisdictions in Canada have already ruled the unconstitutionality of the provisions which set an unequal age of consent for anal intercourse at 18 years. We ask that you follow up on these provincial court rulings in the name of equity and justice for youth and repeal section 159 of the Criminal Code.

In closing, we strongly believe that this proposed law endangers young people more than it protects them. It shows disdain for them by making decisions without adequate consultation. We note that youth under the age of 18 do not have the right to vote at present and that this fact profoundly affects the process by which this bill was conceived.