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Youth oppose raising consent age

'We're treating normal growing up as a problem'

WILL IT HURT OR HELP? Justice minister Vic Toews announces the new age of consent bill at Ottawa police headquarters on Jun 23. Youth activists say there's nothing good, and lots bad, with the bill. Credit: Jefferson Mendoza

About 50 people, including queer youth, attended a Jun 15 forum organized by Toronto’s Xtra to discuss the Conservative government’s plan to increase Canada’s age of consent to 16 from 14.

“Does anyone think [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper is really going to side with queer youth?” asked panelist Ryan Hinds, a youth activist.

Justice Minister Vic Toews introduced legislation Jun 23 to raise the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14. The legislation would leave the age of consent for anal sex at 18 — though the law has been struck down in three provinces including Ontario because it discriminates against gay youth. Toews’ bill includes a close-in-age clause that would allow 14-year-olds to have sex with a partner up to the age of 19, and 15-year-olds with a partner up to the age of 20.

Panelist Leanne Cusitar, who works in a sexual health clinic, said that just because the anal sex law has been struck down here, doesn’t mean it doesn’t get used. She cited the example of a relationship between a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old, where the mother of the 17-year-old found mention of a sexual relationship in her son’s diary, and had the lover charged. Only after the 17-year-old arranged an interview to tell the judge that the relationship was consensual did the charge disappear.

“All over two people in love,” said Cusitar. “We’re treating normal growing up as a problem.”

Panelist Alix Mukonambi, who recently won an award for outstanding contributions to queer youth education and awareness, said the proposed changes haven’t been thought through to determine if they will help or harm youth; she argued it’s more about control. Nor have young people been consulted on the issue. She said there is a difference between children and adolescents, a difference that gets lost in the rush to protect “children.”

“The image of the child denies young people agency in their lives because a lot of youth aren’t children,” she said. “This is a Conservative government as it tries to live up to the image of the US.”

Tom Warner, founding board member of the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO), pointed out that the Criminal Code already protects young people with laws against coercion and assault, laws prohibiting relationships between minors and older persons in a position of trust, exploitative relationships because of undefined age differences, sex for consideration (sex for rent, food or money) with young people, procuring, child porn and luring over the Internet.

“You have to wonder how much more they could legislate,” said Warner.

All the panelists expect the legislation to pass; the Liberals and New Democrats have said they would support it, which would give it enough votes, despite the Bloc Québécois’ stated opposition. Panelists expressed their frustration that the NDP has not spoken out against the bill, since it has supported sexual liberties in the past.

“Jack Layton has some explaining to do,” said Warner. “You’re either the government or the church. You can’t be both.”

Audience member Andrew Brett, a member of the NDP youth wing, said they have come out against an increase in the age of consent, but “the caucus is not listening to us.”