Members of Parliament passed a private member’s bill that would remove the term “child pornography” from Canada’s laws, replacing it with “child sexual abuse and exploitation material” – reflecting a change in language that advocates and survivors of this type of abuse have long called for.
The bill, which was drafted by Conservative MP Frank Caputo and sponsored by his party colleague, Mel Arnold, gained rare support from all parties, passing in a unanimous vote Wednesday, after having moved swiftly through the parliamentary process in the House.
The parliamentarians are cautious not to overstate the impact of the bill. It would solely swap the two phrases, and would not redefine the type of material that’s now illegal or make any other changes. However, they emphasized the importance of the shift in language.
If it becomes law, Bill C-291 would mean that instead of being charged with “possession of child pornography,” for instance, a perpetrator would be charged with “possession of child sexual abuse and exploitation material.” This wording change would then be reflected in police work, courtrooms, media coverage, and, these parliamentarians hope, among the general public.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Caputo pointed out that the term pornography has a misleading connotation in this context.
“Why are we using a term that suggests consent with adults when we’re talking about a population that simply cannot consent in law,” said Mr. Caputo, noting that in Canadian law, children under the age of 16 cannot consent to any kind of sexual interaction with an adult. “Words do matter.”
Before his time in Parliament, Mr. Caputo was a prosecutor, where for about eight years, he largely focused on cases of sexual offences against children that involved digital evidence.
“When you have a child who is depicted in sexual abuse and exploitation material, that child is not only a victim of hands-on offending, they are revictimized every single time that these things are sent throughout the dark web – we need to reflect that in our laws,” Mr. Caputo said.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation material is a growing problem in Canada.
In 2021, Cybertip.ca, Canada’s tip line for reporting online child sexual abuse and exploitation, saw a 37-per-cent increase in reports related to the overall online victimization of children, compared with the previous year.
“Since 2014, when nationally representative cybercrime data first became available, the number of police-reported online child sexual exploitation and abuse incidents has generally been on an upward trend,” Statistics Canada noted in an analysis published last year.
Mr. Arnold said the unanimous support for the bill shows that it a “common sense” measure, adding that there is “no downside” to making this change. It would, he said, bring Canada in line with a number of other international partners that already use updated language.
“This is just one step, of many, that need to be taken,” said Mr. Arnold, who spoke to The Globe and Mail with Mr. Caputo.
Their bill will need to pass through the Senate before it becomes law. It has already been introduced in the Red Chamber, and is set to enter second reading early next week.
Monique St. Germain, general counsel with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said the terminology of “child pornography” has been falling out of favour for years, noting that it “minimizes and de-legitimizes” the experiences of survivors and victims.
The centre feels strongly about the importance of the change that Mr. Caputo and Mr. Arnold’s bill would provide, and has, for years, advocated for such a shift, she said.
“This needs to happen,” Ms. St. Germain said. “There’s a lot more we’d like to see happen, but this is something that is definitely doable in the short-term … and it would matter for victims.”
The Phoenix 11, a collective of survivors whose child sexual abuse was recorded and, in most cases, distributed online, have spoken out strongly against the term “child pornography” being applied to imagery of them, she noted.
The language shift is one, as well, that some police agencies have already made.
The RCMP, for instance, notes on its website that the phrasing of child pornography “evokes images of children being provocative, rather than suffering horrific sexual abuse. This can help child sexual offenders to justify and normalize their crimes.”