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MPs wish consent bill would disappear

So far only Fry clear in condemnation

The Liberals are using the age of consent bill to hold the Conservatives hostage; meanwhile even progressive MPs in the Liberals and NDP won’t commit to denouncing a plan to raise the age of sexual consent to 16.

Justice hearings on C-22 will begin Mar 21, justice committee clerk Diane Diotte confirms, although the final schedule is not yet available. Presentations will last at least two weeks, at which point the committee can discuss amendments.

That means there’s time for C-22 to wind its way through Parliament before the government falls. Pundits expect the Conservatives to call an election at the end of April, with Canadians voting in late May.

C-22 could be hurried through Parliament with the support of the Liberals, who are in favour of raising the age of consent. But Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings and NDP MPs Libby Davies and Bill Siksay have all emphasized the importance of hearing from a diverse group at the justice committee — a process that could gum up the bill’s progress if an election is called this spring.

“We should not cut short that debate. I’m looking forward to hearing from all the stakeholders,” Jennings told Capital Xtra Mar 8.

That statement may carry more weight than it appears to. In November, the Conservatives accused the Liberals and NDP of slow-walking the bill by failing to fast track it after second reading. Now, in a strange reversal, it appears that the Conservatives, who are polling on the verge of majority government, are in a position to kill the bill’s chances of becoming law by sending Canadians to the ballot box.

“That’s a risk that the government takes if it engineers its own downfall,” says Jennings.

Queer lobby group Egale has already confirmed that it will make a presentation to the committee. Other gay-rights groups have pledged to do the same or are sending in position papers. The RCMP and former Toronto police bulldog Paul Gillespie will also be presenting, Diotte says.

Behind the scenes, the NDP are working on two amendments, according to a representative from justice critic Joe Comartin’s office.

“I don’t know that those amendments are enough to satisfy my concerns,” says out gay MP Bill Siksay, who won’t commit to voting against C-22 until he sees the motion as amended. “My concern is still that we should not be going down the road of criminalizing the consensual sexual activities of young people.

“If you give the impression that there’s something illegal about their sexual practices, then you’ll drive them further underground,” says Siksay.

Comartin, who tried unsuccessfully to rally support for the bill among his party’s young and gay members last autumn, will propose an amendment to harmonize the age of consent for anal sex with that of vaginal and oral sex. Section 159, which covers age of consent for anal sex — once set at 21, now 18 — has been struck down by the courts in Ontario, BC and Quebec. The law also prohibits anal sex involving more than two persons.

Although it is seldom applied, the NDP won’t ask to strike the whole of section 159, which carries with it a maximum jail term of 10 years, just change the age for anal play to 16. It’s a move that Jennings says the Liberals support — but she’s still in favour of raising the age of consent on principal.

The other Comartin amendment would exempt medical professionals from disclosing personal details about a minor’s sexual histories to police under the Canada Evidence Act.

The fate of these amendments remains up in the air even before they are voted on.

“I don’t think they will be found to be inside the scope and that makes it very difficult,” says Siksay.

Because the bill passed second reading at Parliament, the justice committee — the majority of whose members are from the opposition parties — is limited in its ability to amend the bill by its scope, says Jennings. In other words, Comartin can’t make changes that don’t directly deal with the existing bill — and that decision is up to the committee’s chair, Conservative MP Art Hanger. The committee can overrule the chair by a majority vote — but the Conservatives can re-introduce the bill into the House however they wish.

The NDP party line appears to be: wait and see. Out lesbian Libby Davies says she won’t commit to voting against the bill until she sees how Comartin’s amendments go, a sentiment echoed by Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar (see sidebar).

“I can’t tell you what I would do, because I don’t know what’s going to happen at committee,” says Davies.

“I’d don’t know. I’m waiting to see what they do at committee.”

In comments to Parliament in October, Siksay and Davies made a handful of arguments against the bill: that youth are already protected from exploitative sex; that the bill drives youth sexuality underground, leaving them more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections; that young people have not been heard by Parliament on this issue; and that the bill should correct the homophobic distinction between vaginal and anal sex. They were the only two MPs to speak against the bill at the time.

“I certainly stand by my concerns,” says Davies.

The only MP who will not equivocate is the Vancouver gaybourhood’s Liberal MP, Hedy Fry. She calls the bill “foolish.”

“I do not agree with it. What you’ve done is suddenly created a problem for youth which wasn’t a problem before.

In September 2005, a private member’s bill to raise the age of consent to 16 by Conservative MP Nina Grewal failed to gain steam in the House Of Commons. The bill was roundly defeated, with the Liberals, led by justice minister Irwin Cotler, the NDP and the Bloc voting against it.

So why the Liberal flip-flop?

“I’d have to check, but I think that the motion did not include a near-age-range [exemption],” says Jennings, who has been an MP since 1997.

Given the Liberal and NDP rhetoric of “hearing from all the stakeholders” — and an increasing consensus that the Conservatives will trigger a spring election — the bill could become an issue on the campaign trail. It appears that the Liberals are prepared to out-Conservative the Conservatives if the government calls an election. The indication from Jennings is that the Liberals are ready to sling accusations that the government’s politicking is leaving the nation’s precious children vulnerable — a favourite tactic of the Conservatives when they were in opposition.

Which, for MPs like Libby Davies, is just fine. She wants the issue to go away, and thinks that Parliament won’t get to the bill before an election.

“Which in some ways would be the best thing,” she says.

Representatives from Irwin Cotler and Belinda Stronach’s office redirected Capital Xtra’s calls to Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings. The office of downtown Toronto MP Bill Graham office did not return our calls. Interviews with Joe Comartin and Montreal gaybourhood MP Theirry St Cyr could not be arranged because Parliament is on a two-week hiatus.