Under pressure from the House of Commons, the Senate is racing through its study of the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill, but a few loud voices are making sure the proposed age of consent changes do not pass without debate.
On Feb 11, the House adopted a motion calling on the Senate to pass the government’s Tackling Violent Crime Act, which includes an increase in the age of consent from 14 to 16. The motion gives the Senate a Mar 1 deadline, and it carried with support from the Bloc Quebecois. If the Senate does not pass the bill in time, the Conservatives have said they will call an election.
But that won’t stop Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs from calling attention to the “bizarre” proposal to change Canada’s age of consent laws.
“The Minister of Justice would have you believe that this [bill] is going to save young women and young men from sexual exploitation,” she says. “But this is about saying to a 15-year-old that you cannot have consensual sex, you cannot have touching, you cannot have a kiss, anything with anyone that is more than five years older, or you’re going to find yourself being charged.”
“The public perception is that somehow if we raise age of consent from 14 to 16, all of our young women and men are going to be immediately saved from sexual exploitation,” Carstairs told the committee Feb 13.
Carstairs is also concerned that the bill will prevent youth from seeking out sexual health information. She says a 15-year-old who has a partner more than five years older may not report STIs in order to avoid criminalizing their older partner.
Unfortunately, it’s a hard sell to the public, particularly when the government is playing word games with the legislation, playing into the fear of paedophilia. The Tories began using the “age of protection” in place of “age of consent,” reinforcing the fear that youth are not capable of making smart decisions about their own sexuality.
So far, the Senate committee has heard from lawyers and statisticians, but next week, at least one youth-led group is scheduled to make a presentation.
Nick Dodds, 19, of the youth-led Age of Consent Committee will speak on Feb 22.
“Youth have been conspicuously absent from this process,” he says. “Parliamentary process is hostile to young people. They have school, family, and part-time jobs to worry about. Most of those between the ages of 14 and 18 can’t even afford to get up there to make a submission. A more proactive attempt to consult young people should have been made.”
Queer groups have also applied to speak at the committee — both the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario and Jer’s Vision have been slated for presentations on Feb 22.
The age of consent for anal sex is 18 under Canada’s Criminal Code, and the House of Commons justice committee — chaired by Conservative MP Art Hanger — refused to amend the bill to repeal that discriminatory law.
Carstairs has expressed concern that the rush to get the bill through the Senate may prevent a thorough debate.
“Witnesses are being contacted,” she says, “but I suspect that we won’t hear from all of the witnesses we want to hear from, simply because we won’t have time.”