A bill requiring sexual-assault training for judges that has been held up in Parliament for years may finally become law, now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole are on the same page. It’s about time.
The legislation requires newly appointed judges to participate in seminars on sexual assault that include "education regarding myths and stereotypes associated with sexual-assault complainants.”
The seminars are intended to deter judges from succumbing to what could be called “fine-young-man syndrome,” as in: “Yes, the accused has been found guilty of a terrible crime, but he’s a fine young man whose life should not be ruined because he made a mistake,” which leads to a reduced sentence that revictimizes whomever he attacked.
The most recent high-profile case involved Matthew McKnight, an Edmonton nightclub promoter who was found guilty of sexually assaulting five women. The presiding judge reduced the 16½-year sentence she was going to impose to eight years, in part because she believed in Mr. McKnight’s potential for rehabilitation. The Crown has appealed the sentence to the Court of Appeal of Alberta.
Rona Ambrose introduced her legislation as a private-member’s bill when she was interim Conservative leader in February, 2017. It sailed through the House, but then languished in the Senate, obstructed mostly by Conservative senators who insisted that they weren’t killing the bill through inaction, though in fact they were. The bill died with the dissolution of Parliament for the 2019 election. Earlier this year, the Liberals reintroduced the legislation as a government bill, which would make it much harder for senators to obstruct. But it died in committee when Parliament was prorogued.
The senators might have been listening to concerns from the Canadian Judicial Council, which has warned against shoving “controversial educational initiatives down the throats of judges.”
A future Parliament might impose indoctrination on a more controversial subject, warned Michael MacDonald, interim executive director, in March of this year. “If you tell us what we have to learn, you tell us what we have to think.”
But the bill doesn’t tell judges what they have to think. It tells them what they need to know, which is why, in this instance, the concerns of the judicial council should be set aside.
Last week, Justice Minister David Lametti reintroduced the bill, now known as C-3. As Ms. Ambrose told CTV’s Evan Solomon, “maybe three time’s a charm.”
But luck is less important than leadership. When Andrew Scheer was Conservative leader, he seemed reluctant to champion the bill. But Mr. O’Toole “supports Bill C-3 without amendments. He will be voting in favour of it,” Melanie Paradis, his director of communications, told me.
And Tory MPs are with him. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner, in a lengthy address to the House last week, said the legislation “makes me angry. It is absurd to me that we have to spend time figuring out how to train the men in Canada’s systemically misogynistic justice system to be sensitive to sexual assault.” Nonetheless, she supports the bill.
Most victims of sexual assault don’t report the crime in part because of “a lack of faith in, or fear of, the criminal-justice system itself,” wrote Heidi Illingworth, the federal Ombudsman for victims of crime, in support of the earlier version of the bill. “Judges need training to challenge the false stereotypes about sexual violence that they may hold.”
The most legitimate concern over the bill is its relevance. Most sexual-assault trials take place in courtrooms presided over by provincially appointed judges. In that sense, Bill C-3 can serve as a template for similar provincial legislation. Some provinces have moved or are moving with legislation of their own.
Parliament has some big, complicated justice legislation to consider in the weeks ahead, including changes to the rules surrounding medical assistance in dying and banning conversion therapy. These bills would benefit from close parliamentary scrutiny, especially in committee.
Bill C-3 and its predecessors have been studied and debated to death, in both the House and the Senate, for almost four years. It does not require any further consideration. It has unanimous, or near unanimous, support in the House. As a government bill, it should be able to overcome any resistance in the Senate.
Parliament should make this bill law. The sooner the better.
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