In some aspects, the Canadian Criminal Code has a few very modern features. It has a section that mentions nuclear terrorism. Other parts deal with the possibility that a Canadian astronaut could commit a crime while orbiting aboard the International Space Station.
But the Criminal Code is also filled with archaic offences. Some remain in place despite having been overturned by the courts. Others ban outdated customs, such as duelling or debasing gold coins, or would curtail common features of contemporary life – comic books, loyalty customer programs, marketing Viagra – if applied to the letter of the law.
Some provisions that have been cited in debates about updating the Criminal Code include:
Section 163 (1) (b) bans the publishing, distribution or sale of any comics that show people committing crimes. That provision is a legacy of a 1948 private bill by British Columbia MP Davie Fulton who later became justice minister under John Diefenbaker. Mr. Fulton told the Commons that violent comic books had influenced young people in a spate of crimes, including a murder in Dawson Creek involving two boys, aged 11 and 13. "The easiest way to impress a lesson upon a juvenile mind is by illustration," he said. "That is exactly what these crime comics do. They present in coloured pictures the commission of crimes of violence, showing every possible detail."
Anyone who has seen an ad for Viagra or Cialis would be surprised to know that the Code's subsection 163 (2) (d), outlaws the advertising of drugs that are "a method for restoring sexual virility or curing venereal diseases."
In his book about outdated laws, Under Arrest: Canadian Laws You Won't Believe, Toronto lawyer Bob Tarantino notes that the Code only prohibits the advertising, not the use of such drugs. The subsections are "a Canadian relic," he writes.
Before modern coins became minted with sturdier alloys of nickel, copper or steel, coin clipping was a more common crime. It involved trimming bits off gold or silver coin. The shavings could be collected, diluted with base metals and melted into counterfeit currency. Section 451 of the Criminal Code therefore made it an offence, punishable with up to five years in jail, for anyone to have in their possession gold or silver clippings or to have engaged in "lightening a current gold or silver coin."
Section 71 says that provoking a person to fight in a duel, or accepting such a challenge, is an indictable offence and liable to up to two years imprisonment. Duelling itself, however, is not outlawed.
Water-skiing without a spotter
Section 250 (1) says that anyone who operates a boat pulling a water-skier "when there is not on board such vessel another responsible person keeping watch on the person being towed" is guilty of an offence. Section 250 (2) forbids water-skiing from one hour after sunset until sunrise.
In 1992, the Supreme Court of British Columbia tossed out a case involving a man charged by the RCMP for using a Ski-Free remote towing device. Since he was water-skiing by himself and was not on board the device towing him, the court found there could not be another person on the vessel at the same time.
Pretending to practise witchcraft
According to Section 365, it is illegal to pretend to exercise "any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration." The charge was used in 2012 against a Mississauga man, Gustavo Valencia Gomez, who was also charged with fraud, false pretenses and possession of the proceeds of crime because he allegedly advertised his services as a faith healer. The charges were dropped after he agreed to repay his clients.
The Criminal Code, under Section 427, says it is an offence to issue or sell "trading stamps," coupons that can be redeemed for discounted goods. The section dates from 1905, when a boom in trading stamps triggered concerns that they constituted deceptive sales practices. "The mischief to which the Trading Stamp Act is directed is difficult to discern, and so it's been generally ignored. But as long as it remains in the Criminal Code, it may have unforeseen consequences," University of New Brunswick law professor Richard Bird wrote in 2002 in the Canadian Bar Review.
Prof. Bird said modern frequent-buyer point schemes are similar to trading stamps and argued that Section 427 needs to be repealed because it is outdated and constitutionally questionable.