Eleven months ago, then-federal justice minister John Crosbie proposed tough new legislation in response to what he said were widespread demands for a crackdown on pornography. But Crosbie’s bill died quietly when Parliament adjourned last August after women’s groups, artists and legal experts had denounced it as prudish, vague and unworkable. In particular, many critics objected to a definition of pornography so broad that visual depictions of all sexual activities—taken to the extreme, even kissing and hand-holding—could have been included. In response to those criticisms, Crosbie’s successor, Ray Hnatyshyn, last week produced a redrafted bill that he said would allow Ottawa to “attack pornography head-on.” But at week’s end, it was clear that the new bill had again embroiled Ottawa in a debate over how much sexuality Canadians think should appear in their movies and magazines.
For his part, Hnatyshyn defended the new legislation on the grounds that uniform, countrywide safeguards against pornography were generally wanted— and needed. Said Hnatyshyn: “I believe—and I know all Canadians agree with me—that there can be no justification for the depiction of extreme sexual violence or the exploitation of Canada’s youth.” To that end, his bill calls for prison sentences of up to 10 years for anyone convicted of manufacturing or
selling material containing visual images of sexual violence. The same penalty would apply for depictions of sexual activity involving children under 18—or adults portraying children.
In Ottawa, feminists such as Louise Dulude, president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, applauded those proposed changes and also praised Hnatyshyn’s bill for distinguishing between pornography and erotica. The new law would equate erotica with the nudity currently displayed in such masscirculation magazines as Playboy and Penthouse.
They would continue to be legally available—although not for sale to minors.
Still, some critics expressed concern about another section of the bill—one that would label pornographic any depiction of “masturbation or ejaculation or vaginal, anal or oral intercourse.”
Indeed, Alan Borovoy, the Torontobased general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, argued that such an inclusion clearly showed that Hnatyshyn had “responded to the most Neanderthal voices” in the debate over pornography. Added Dulude: “We sup-
port the other aspects of the bill, but by including healthy sexual intercourse, they are totally skewing the package.”
At the same time, many artists questioned the value of one defence allowed them under the bill—proving that sexually explicit material had “artistic merit,” a phrase that they said was dangerously open to interpretation. In any event, that defence would not be available for works that showed sexually explicit depictions of minors. And John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association, objected to a proposal calling for a prominent warning sign near displays of erotica in locations ranging from corner stores to art galleries. As a playful protest McAvity suggested that art groups print up thousands of posters showing a stylized breast with a red line through it.
But supporters of the legislation said that they would oppose any efforts to liberalize the bill. Declared Lynne Scime, the Hamilton-based president of REAL Women, a 40,000-member organization dedicated to fostering traditional values: “Now that Hnatyshyn has said what we wanted him to say, it’s up to us to get co-ordinated and urge him to hold firm.”
Indeed, Hnatyshyn, like Crosbie before him, was the focus of a concerted lobby by church organizations for stronger antipornography laws. And backbench members of the Conservative caucus—particularly MPs from rural ridings—have also felt the pressure. One of them, Brian White, said that he receives 10 or 20 letters on the subject each week from constituents in his west-central Manitoba riding of Dauphin-Swan River. Declared White: “The church groups are well-organized. They really put on the pressure. And they say they won’t let up until the legislation is passed.”
Although Hnatyshyn’s bill has widespread support in the federal Tory caucus, some MPs, including White, share feminists’ concerns about defining all visual images of intercourse as pornographic. And a federal justice department official predicted that a pornography distributor would likely mount a _ court challenge to that 2 section of the proposed law using the guarantee of free expression entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That alone may ensure that the protracted debate over pornography will continue into the indefinite future.
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