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NDP holds firm on age of consent

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin hasn’t let a group of angry queers sway his support of the federal Conservatives push to increase the age of consent.

The Toronto Centre NDP riding association held a meeting on Oct 17 to discuss the party’s decision to support Bill C-22, which proposes to raise the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14. A motion to support the bill was controversially passed at the NDP policy convention in September amid protest from youth delegates.

Comartin attended the meeting to present the party’s rationale for supporting the Tory bill, arguing that existing legislation isn’t effective because youths’ testimonies sometimes undermine court cases against supposedly exploitative adults.

“[If] you have the individual who is supposed to be the victim on the stand saying either at the time or even now this relationship was not exploitive, in spite of a huge age gap between the person who’s charged with the exploitation and the alleged victim, you’re just simply not going to get a conviction…. The exploitation sections [of the Criminal Code] are not working.”

Comartin dismissed the suggestion that youth themselves should be the ones to determine whether a relationship is exploitative.

“The weight of the evidence that has been given to us by psychiatrists… is that the vast majority [of youth] are not able to make that logical, mature decision to be in a relationship with someone that is much older than themselves,” said Comartin.

Andrew Brett, cofounder of the Age Of Consent Committee, questioned why it’s the age of consent and not the sexual assault laws being revisited.

“Wouldn’t that say something about our sexual assault laws in general?” asked Brett.

The bill itself has already been tabled in the House Of Commons, though it’s unclear whether it will pass before an election is called.

“There are enough votes. This will get approval at second reading,” said Comartin, who added that the NDP is in favour of including amendment that would address the law prohibiting anal sex before age 18 – a law three provincial courts have declared unconstitutional.

If the amendment isn’t accepted, Comartin says he will propose a private member’s bill to achieve the same end. If neither of these options comes to fruition, Comartin didn’t know whether the NDP caucus would oppose the bill, but stressed that he didn’t want the caucus to be split over the issue.

Comartin also wants changes to the Evidence Act so teens won’t fear the arrest of their lover if they seek treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Peter Bochove, co-owner of Spa Excess, wants the term paedophile removed from debate on the bill, arguing that it didn’t apply to the 14 and 15-year-olds who would be affected by the bill. Bochove also argued that the support of the bill threatened the NDP’s credibility among young voters.

“If this is passed and the NDP has a hand in it, how do you justify that to the young people?” asked Bochove.

Other NDP supporters spoke out against Bill C-22 and questioned the process by which the party came to support it.

“What bothers me the most is the failure of the NDP to consult its members,” said Nora Currie.

“When you’re talking about saving the children or protecting the youth, we’re all there, we’re down, everybody’s down with that… but you have to look at the big picture,” said Currie. “[Youth] are smart. They know what they’re doing…. They are sexually active and they’re choosing to be sexually active and what’s unfortunate is we’re criminalizing that.”

Longtime activist Richard Hudler argued that more effort should be placed on providing better sexual education in our schools instead of criminalizing youth sexuality.

“The education isn’t there and this legislation is sidestepping trying to put that education in place,” said Hudler.

At one point Comartin brought up the bill’s near-in-age clause, which would allow those under the age of 14 the right to consent to sex with peers within two years in age, and those between 14 and 16 the right to consent to sex with peers within five years of age.

“Where’s the negative impact?” he asked.

It was at this point that an audience member stood up and told the meeting that his relationship with his younger partner, who sat beside him, would have been criminalized if this law had been in effect a year ago because they are six years apart.