For those Ottawans with a taste for broad burlesque, the parliamentary committee studying reforms to Canada’s antiquated sex laws has been mounting what is probably the best show in town for the past three months. When the committee finally lobbed its brand-new, but already dogeared, sexual offences bill into the Commons late last week, many of the 20 MPs involved in the often acrimonious, sometimes hilarious and occasionally serious debate looked as if they desperately wanted to leave town before they hit someone—most likely one of their own parliamentary colleagues. “Men,” sniffed one feminist lobbyist who fol-
lowed the debate, “they’re so moody and temperamental!”
The mood in the Commons is scarcely better, but the bill—aimed at reforming the rape laws and tightening penalties for child abduction by warring spouses—is expected to pass before the House adjourns this week. But even if it does, it may just signal the start of a new war. Women’s groups are divided on how good the new bill is. Most like the way it “degenderizes” rape and stresses its violent rather than sexual nature, but others say it does not go far enough in protecting rape victims from humiliating questioning on the witness stand. But if the bill, even in its imperfect form, runs into trouble in the House or Senate, Canada could be stuck with the present sexist and inadequate rape law for another decade. After two failures over the past 10 years, few MPs would be eager to try reform again—
least of all Justice Minister Jean Chrétien, who has already promised to concentrate next session on reintroducing the doomed “kiddie porn” provisions of the bill, chopped last week in the face of inalterable opposition.
In fact, Chrétien is still smarting from constant opposition charges that he skipped too many meetings, burdened the committee with 42 pages of amendments late in the game, and is generally “indifferent” to the cause of rape reform. Meanwhile, his loyal assistants have developed a full-blown hatred for New Democrat Svend Robinson, the bright young justice critic whose relentless pursuit of detail drove his committee colleagues—both Liberal and Tory—to distraction. Chrétien has
called Robinson gutless and “a perfectionist” and has not forgiven him for opposing the justice minister’s Constitution bill last year. “I think that will hang around your neck until you die, that you voted against the Bill of Rights of Canada,” the minister railed at one meeting. He and other committee members have also sneered at 30-year-old Robinson’s relative inexperience as a lawyer. For his part, the sometimes prickly Robinson has resorted to biting sarcasm, referring to Chrétien’s “extensive experience from the convents of Shawinigan.” Indeed, at its least inspired moments, “Shawinigan jokes” became something of a staple at the hearings, particularly after Chrétien revealed that in the beer parlors in his St. Maurice valley riding they make jokes about sexual reforms: “They are very funny [jokes], but I do not want them on the record of this committee.”
They could scarcely be more hilarious than some of the exchanges between parliamentarians. In the early stages the government had planned to remove bestiality from the sexual offences area and deal with it under cruelty to animals. Ken Robinson, a right-wing Liberal from Toronto, was aghast: “Is it fair to say that bestiality is now legal, unless there is unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to the animal?” he asked Chrétien. Later, the outraged back-bencher attacked a government proposal to end the prohibition of group sex among consenting adults. Who pushed for the change, Robinson demanded, “a group of homosexuals?” No, replied Chrétien, it was a suggestion made four years ago by the Law Reform Commission. “Maybe they are a bunch of homosexuals,” said Liberal Robinson.
“Pardon?” Chrétien blinked in disbelief. Robinson hastily withdrew his remark, and the government, with similar haste, decided that bestiality would stay where it is in the Criminal Code and that group sex would remain illegal.
But debate occasionally rose from the ridiculous to the refined, particularly on the issue of whether or not a man could use “honest belief” as a defence in a rape trial—the so-called “I thought she was saying yes” defence. While the bill strictly limits the circumstances in which a rape victim would be required to testify about any previous sexual activity, she could be forced to take the stand if a man convinced a judge that he honestly believed she consented. Chrétien said the defence would rarely be allowed, and only in a situation in which a woman has sex with several men on the same night and chooses later to charge one with rape. The accused should be able to argue that because she consented to his friends, he assumed that she wanted him, too, said the minister. But Svend Robinson said the clause undermines the simple fact that “no means no.” The only relevant evidence in a rape case is the details of one particular act, he said. “I don’t care if she slept with a whole football team— if one player comes along and she says no, it means no.” In the end the government—with its comfortable majorityprevailed, but they probably have not heard the last of the issue. It is bound to be a feminist target.
Perhaps another measure of the general grumpiness on the Hill these days is the fact that one provision that virtually everyone involved in rape reform agreed upon—that husbands should no longer be immune from charges of raping their own wives—stirred unexpected controversy within the committee. Svend Robinson tried to introduce an amendment that would specifically outlaw spousal immunity, but Chrétien quickly stepped in to explain that the new bill implicitly rules out spousal immunity and that there is no need to spell it out. Robinson’s argument, that it should be made crystal clear—to women and judges—that marital rape is no longer allowed, failed to convince Chrétien.
Still, despite all the raging controversies, some proposals in the new bill got unanimous approval, and many represent significant changes in the way the legal system will deal with rape and its victims. For one thing, the word “rape” will disappear from the code, to be replaced by “sexual assault” or “aggravated sexual assault,” covering everything from what the committee called “bum-pinching incidents” to the brutal rapes that have recently alarmed so many women in Calgary and Toronto. Maximum sentences will range from six months to life, based on the degree of
violence of the attack rather than the degree of sexual intimacy. The language also makes it clear that men as well as women are victims of sexual assault, and the bill underlines that if a rape victim submits without resistance it does not automatically mean he or she consented to the act. Nor will there be any need to prove “penetration” occurred for a sexual assault charge to be laid.
For some women these provisions alone make the bill worth passing. But for the politicians, fear of looking like ill-tempered bunglers may be the operative principle this week. Already the unseemly, but entirely characteristic, scramble to lay blame or claim success has started. Jean Chrétien—whose frankness engages some and enrages
1 others—was boasting to re§ porters last week that his £ “fake” outburst three weeks 2 ago, when he stormed out of I a committee meeting charg3 ing the opposition with not 1 really wanting reform,
forced everyone to co-operate. “Actually, I had a lunch appointment that day anyway,” the minister chortled. In fact, the Liberal who worked hardest on the bill was an ambitious, affable MP from Toronto, Jim Peterson, but even his perpetually sunny grin was as thin as rice paper at week’s end. Ray Hnatyshyn made the Tory case, and, although most Liberals in Ottawa would rather choke than admit it, some credit must go to the indefatigable Svend Robinson.
But before they start handing out bouquets, women’s groups and others who have tracked the arduous course of rape reform since it was first proposed by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1970 will want to see if the new bill—if it passes—has the desired effect of producing more charges in sexual assault cases, more convictions and penalties better suited to the crime. Perhaps the best news out of Ottawa last week came from government lawyer Faye Campbell, who says in the past few months average sentences for rape have increased from three to four years to six to eight years in British Columbia and Ontario. To her it signals that “maybe the legal system is starting to recognke sexual assault as a serious crime.” Now if only the warriors on Parliament Hill could do something about the violence they inflict on one another.
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