A federal bill aimed at cracking down on early and forced marriages and polygamy has left some legal experts questioning whether the problem is widespread enough to warrant the new measures.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced the proposed law in Toronto on Wednesday, saying it would eliminate early and forced marriages from Canada's immigration system.
The bill, dubbed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, would make it illegal to facilitate a forced or underage marriage and would make temporary and permanent residents deportable if they practice polygamy in Canada.
Speaking to reporters in Toronto, Mr. Alexander called the practices "incompatible with Canadian values." He also said there are "at least hundreds" of immigrants who are in polygamous marriages in Canada.
But some immigration lawyers are questioning the need for the new legislation, saying they are aware of few cases of polygamy among immigrants to Canada and don't see early and forced marriage as a pervasive concern.
Immigration lawyer Joel Sandaluk said the polygamy portion of the bill was particularly puzzling because the practice is already illegal in Canada. He said the legislation seems to be aimed at individuals who were married in another country before arriving in Canada, but added that he believes their numbers are relatively few.
After practising immigration law in Canada for 15 years, he said he's never come across the issue. "It's just something that's completely outside of my experience as an immigration lawyer," he said.
Mr. Sandaluk said he also wasn't aware of a particular concern with the ability to prosecute forced marriages, and pointed to the language of the announcement and the term "barbaric cultural practices" as evidence that the government is targeting a specific subset of the population.
"What the government I think is doing is sending a political message with this legislation," he said. "And I think this is better considered posturing rather than policy."
Deepa Mattoo, acting executive director for the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, said she was troubled by the term "barbaric" because it suggests the government is targeting particular communities and does not see the problem of polygamy and early and forced marriage as a "Canadian issue."
Ms. Mattoo said she agrees with the idea of a national minimum age for marriage, but objected to the law being tied specifically to immigrant communities. She added that immigrant and cultural communities received little warning of the legislation, and many would prefer to talk about protection for those affected by early and forced marriage and polygamy, rather than prohibition.
Sharry Aiken, a professor in the law faculty at Queen's University, said there are genuine underlying concerns behind the legislation. But she said the government would do better to enforce its existing laws, rather than create new ones.
The bill, which was tabled in the Senate on Wednesday, would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to make permanent and temporary residents deportable if they practice polygamy in Canada. It would also amend the Civil Marriage Act to establish a national minimum marriage age of 16.
Those who celebrate, aid or participate in the marriage of someone who is underage or being married against their will could be subject to a maximum five-year prison sentence if the legislation passes.
In addition, the bill would seek to limit the ability of perpetrators of so-called "honour crimes" from using provocation or cultural differences in their defence.
In his comments on Wednesday, Mr. Alexander noted the case of an Afghan immigrant accused of stabbing his wife to death last year, apparently because he felt dishonoured by her independence.
He cited another case in which an Afghan-Canadian man, his second wife and their son were convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of his three teenaged daughters and his first wife – also because he felt they were bringing dishonour on the family by dating or dressing in ways he found offensive.
With a report from The Canadian Press