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Conservative bill on training judges in sex-assault law spurs political clash

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on April 3, 2017.


A Conservative bill that proposes mandatory training in sex-assault law for judges and appeared to have all-party support was dragged into political finger-pointing on Tuesday after the Liberals questioned the previous government's appointment of the judge who asked a complainant why she did not keep her knees together.

While asking a question during a House of Commons committee meeting, Liberal MP Pam Damoff pointed out that a Tory justice minister, Peter MacKay, appointed Robin Camp to the Federal Court after he had made the comments as a provincial court judge in Alberta.

Mr. Camp resigned last month after a national disciplinary body recommended his removal.

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Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose immediately went on the defensive, even before Ms. Damoff had finished her question.

"Are you suggesting that Peter MacKay's responsible for that? Look, these are grown people who accept an appointment after applying," Ms. Ambrose said.

"I would watch your comments because you have no idea what some judge might say or has said or done that your government might appoint. These people are supposed to be capable of the job."

Bill C-377 would require any lawyers who want to become judges to complete comprehensive sex-assault law training. It would also direct the Canadian Judicial Council to report every year to Parliament on continuing education courses it offers on the matter and the numbers of cases heard by judges who have never attended such seminars.

Finally, the bill would change the Criminal Code to require judges to produce written decisions in sex-assault cases, rather than oral verdicts.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ms. Ambrose said the government should be focusing on the proposals in her bill, rather than politicizing it.

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"That was a political line of questioning involving Peter MacKay. I mean, come on, we should move forward."

Ms. Ambrose also faced questions from Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld, who asked the Conservative Leader whether she thinks appointments like Mr. Camp's would have occurred under the Liberal government's new merit-based judicial appointments process.

"There's a very good chance it would," Ms. Ambrose replied. "I have seen people appointed who came with incredible CVs and then do things that surprised everyone. ...

"You can't control who applies. ... So at the end of the day, regardless of who gets through those committees, we need them to have training."

The House of Commons voted unanimously last month to fast-track Ms. Ambrose's bill and send it straight to committee. However, it is unclear if the government will support the bill as it stands.

In an e-mail statement on Tuesday, Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef said she welcomed Ms. Ambrose's "understanding and appreciation of the severity of the systemic barriers faced by survivors of sexual assault," but did not further clarify where she stands on the bill, beyond saying she is "pleased" the committee is studying it.

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"I look forward to the discussion on this bill as it progresses through Parliament," Ms. Monsef said in the statement.

Ms. Monsef has not indicated whether she will support the bill, but told the committee last month that the government does not have the jurisdiction to require training.

The 2017 budget proposes $2.7-million over five years for education, ethics and conduct programs for Canadian judges, including training.

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