4 min

Taking it to the Hill

Rights groups to tell Parliament to keep consent at 14

Credit: Tony Fong photo

Canada’s leading gay groups are gearing up to fight the proposed Conservative bill to raise the age of sexual consent.

The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO), the Sex Laws Committee, the Age of Consent Committee and the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century are all planning briefs or presentations to the Parliamentary Justice Committee as it considers Bill C-22. Egale is also expected to make a presentation.

Youth activist Andrew Brett is expected to lead the charge of queer opposition to the bill raising the age of consent to 16 from 14 (while keeping the age of anal consent at 18). Brett is a leader of the Age of Consent Committee, a group of queer youth and other activists who believe young people have the right to make their own choices about when they have sex and with whom.

Bill C-22 will criminalize youth sexuality and also make it difficult to reach young people with important information about safe sex and contraception, says Brett.

But he sees it as part of a larger law-and-order agenda pursued by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Raising the age of consent plays well with the hardcore social- conservative rightwing while still sounding reasonable to many middle-of-the-road Canadians who are not getting exposure in mainstream media about why it’s a bad idea, suggests Brett.

The Justice Committee might not even get to the matter before the Conservative government is toppled and an election called, says Brett, noting former Justice Minister Vic Toews has over-filled the committee’s agenda with a deluge of law-and-order bills.

But Harper might like not getting to Bill C-22, says Brett. Then he can claim the other parties are stalling on legislation that would “protect” youth from sexual predators.

Tom Warner, longtime activist and CLGRO member, says the group has already written a brief opposing raising the age and distributed it to all members of Parliament last fall.

They also intend to make a presentation to the Justice Committee as it debates the issue this spring — if an election doesn’t intervene. And CLGRO will try to keep the issue alive in the gay community through the next federal election. And if it’s not adopted, but reintroduced after an election, CLGRO will be there to speak out in opposition, says Warner.

Leading gay activists are determined to stay on the issue, despite general public support for raising the age, he adds. And they’re not accepting mealy-mouthed platitudes from most Liberal, NDP and Bloc politicians afraid of voting against the bill.

“I don’t think you can compromise on this issue. If you support the notion of sexual self-determination for youth, you have to vote against this,” says Warner.

Richard Hudler says the Sex Laws Committee is working on a submission and is planning to make a presentation to the Justice Committee “if it comes to that.”

He’s hoping for the long-shot options: the Conservatives withdrawing the legislation because of an over-full committee agenda, then an election being called and the Conservatives losing and the Liberals choosing not to bring in similar legislation. After all, the Liberals long opposed raising the age of consent, though they’ve lost the courage of their convictions when pushed on Bill C-22.

Hudler is frustrated by NDP suggestions of minor amendments, such as one that would allow health professionals to keep confidential information about sex practices of sexually active youth.

The important point, says Hudler, is that studies show that “by age 13, young people are able to make decisions about their sexuality.

“If they’re physically astute enough, we should be making sure they’re socially astute enough to make the decision. If not, we need to educate them.”

Peter Bochove says the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century will also speak to the Justice Committee in opposition to raising the consent age.

“It’s so wrong. It’s a civil liberties issue. They’re criminalizing an activity that for the last 100 years hasn’t been criminal.”

Gays and lesbians need to see through the coded language and word play in the consent debate, says Bochove.

“When they’re talking about paedophiles, they’re really talking about us. If they were really concerned about child rape, they’d take people out of the home [where studies show most sexual exploitation of children occurs].”

The law already outlaws child exploitation, notes Bochove.

He’s disappointed that the political parties that claim to be progressive are so far largely backing the bill.

“Fourteen-year-olds are being stripped of their civil liberties and are in no position to defend themselves because they can’t vote, and mommy and daddy can vote. Mommy and daddy have been scared into supporting it, petrified into it. [And the political parties are] looking at public opinion polls that are coming out of sensationalist news stories.”

If the Harper Conservatives survive the next election, “you’re going to see more” socially conservative legislation, Bochove predicts.

Religious values are creeping back into Canadian politics, he says. And even the NDP now has a faith caucus, and their Justice critic, Joe Comartin — the politician who should be leading that party’s charge against Bill C-22, but instead supports it — is a committed Roman Catholic.

“Church and State are separate entities and should remain that way,” says Bochove. “I think people are entitled to believe any fairy-tale that they wish and if it gives them comfort, that’s great. But they should keep it in their church, not my Parliament.

“You can be progressive and Christian and it’s not mutually exclusive. But these people tell the rest of us that we have to live what they believe. And that’s why they don’t belong in government.”

Egale is “ramping up” for the issue, says acting executive-director Kaj Hasselriis. “It’s not like there’s a whole campaign ready to roll.” But the organization last year took a stand against raising the age of consent and the legal issues committee is continuing to discuss it.

They’ll make a presentation before the Justice Committee, says Hasselriis.