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Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander speaks in the House of Commons on Monday November 3, 2014 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The need for and even the name of a new Conservative bill aimed at barring polygamous and forced marriages came under criticism Thursday in the Senate.

Bill S-7, entitled the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, amends immigration and criminal laws and is aimed at keeping polygamists out of Canada and preventing women and girls from being married against their will.

"We wish we could say in the Canada of 2014 that these were no longer challenges for us domestically," Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told the Senate human rights committee on Thursday.

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"But as we know from communities across the country and from the daily fact of violence against women, they remain challenges and we remain duty bound to act against them."

Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk raised concerns that the government's goal of the bill to combat violence is overshadowed by its dramatic title.

"I'm wondering, in that title, if you wanted barbaric cultural practices, which probably wasn't going to be my choice, but if you wanted that, I wished you had added something like violence in there," she said.

Alexander defended the name, saying the fact that it's generated debate is a victory for the government's objective.

"What is a barbaric practice? It is a practice that is unacceptable, it is a practice that involves violence that is in many respects indiscriminate, gratuitously meted out, behind closed doors, where women and girls are defenceless, whereby whole families conspire to ensure underage women lie about their age, take part in a forced marriage," he said.

"It is, in my view, and I think in the view of many Canadians, barbaric to subject your family members to that kind of abuse."

The new law would deny entry to Canada to those seeking to practice polygamy, which is illegal in this country.

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It would also require "free and enlightened consent to marriage" and sets a federal minimum age for marriage at 16 — there had been no such law on the books before.

It also makes it an offence for anyone younger than that to be taken out of Canada to be married elsewhere.

That's a direct reference to the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C., believed to regularly shuttle teenage girls back and forth from the U.S. for marriage.

Four members of that community are charged in relation to that practice under existing laws, but past attempts to convict members of polygamy have failed.

The bill would also bar people charged in honour killings from arguing they were provoked to murder by cultural norms and thus reduce their sentences, though no one charged with an honour killing has ever claimed that, immigration officials told the committee.

"The law you bring here has very little evidence based to it. We've heard of one case of forced marriage that this is based on and absolutely no successful cases of honour killing," said Liberal Sen. Art Eggleton.

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"You have current laws to deal with it and you seem more focused on trying to bring a new law in when you have existing laws you could deal with these matters."

Alexander said Eggleton hadn't done his homework, noting extensive research has been done on the issue of forced marriages in Canada, pointing to the work of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.

In a 2013 survey of social assistance agencies in Ontario and Quebec, the agency uncovered 69 forced marriage cases in 2010, 64 cases in 2011 and 77 cases in 2012.

Yet, the organization itself opposes the proposed bill.

"The government's statements in support of these changes are not based on any statistical data or research, perpetuate myths about practices of polygamy and forced marriages and lead Canadians to believe that violence against women is a 'cultural' issue that happens only in certain communities," a coalition of groups, including SALCO, said in a Nov. 18 news release.

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