Criminal Code omission endangers girls and women
Fact sheet: Exclusion of Women From Canada's Hate Propaganda Law
The Free Radical
Updated May 2011
Girls face alarming rates of violence
Two recent studies carried out in Ontario schools, one conducted by Toronto’s School Community Safety Advisory Panel and the other by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), found that sexual harassment and sexual assault of girls are occurring at alarming rates. The Panel stressed that the problem requires immediate attention.
Following up on the Panel’s report, the Toronto Star ran an article on discussions with girls from five Toronto high schools. They reported being subjected to a barrage of hateful comments – girls are routinely called skank, ho (whore) and slut -- as well as being grabbed on the breast or backside “at any time in the halls”. One 14-year-old student said, “You hear stuff like ‘What’s up, bitch?’ and ‘Hey, ho’ every other second”. Dr. David Wolfe of the CAMH warns that, “All these behaviours, from physical violence to verbal harassment, can be harmful and have serious effects on their well-being.”
Why is this happening?
A significant contributing factor to this hostile environment is the rampant misogyny of popular culture. Over the past 25 years, every segment of the entertainment industry has gradually picked up this theme, and it has now spread into television, video games, music, books, comics, the Internet. Degrading pornography was even offered as a pay-per-view event by one of Canada’s largest broadcasters! So serious has the problem become that a New York Times columnist said, “The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock”. Little wonder then, that girls are being demeaned and assaulted at rates the School Safety Panel called “alarming”.
Politicians have refused to act
Much of the blame for this situation can be laid squarely at the feet of Canadian politicians who have refused to halt the spread of misogynist expression. In 1985, the federally mandated Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution stated there was “ample evidence” indicating women were the targets of hate material, a conclusion reached after the Committee held cross-country hearings. They recommended, among other things, that the federal government change the Criminal Code hate laws to extend protection to women.
Currently, Section 319 of the Criminal Code prohibits the public incitement of hatred against "identifiable groups", those being set out in Section 318(4) as “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation". Sexual orientation, by the way, wasn’t added until 2003 under Private Member’s Bill C-250, introduced by NDP MP Svend Robinson. At the time, federal politicians flatly refused requests to include “sex” in the law, the word that needs to be added to extend protection to girls and women. (The word is gender neutral and would also protect boys and men.)
The public incitement of hatred is illegal under the Criminal Code because it’s acknowledged to be a contributing factor in the promotion of violence and discrimination against the target group. And yet, politicians refuse to add the female half of the population to the protected groups, despite the fact that we are subjected to extraordinary levels of violence. In a March 2008 news release criticizing the government’s failure to act on this law, David Clegg of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said bluntly, “It is a national scandal that the safety of Canadian girls and women continues to be compromised by Canada’s Criminal Code.”
How dare they!
To add insult to injury, excluding girls and women from the hate law is unconstitutional. Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees everyone the “equal protection and equal benefit” of Canadian laws, and yet politicians refuse to grant us our right to this one.
Private Member’s Bill C-384
One of the consequences of this inequitable situation is that it makes some MPs feel comfortable in perpetuating this discrimination against girls and women while drafting new hate crimes legislation. When Bloc MP Carole Freeman introduced Private Member’s Bill C-384 (creates a new Criminal Code offence prohibiting hate-motivated acts of vandalism against educational and other institutions), she left “sex” off the list of “identified groups”. This means girls and women who attend all-girls’ schools or women’s centres, for instance, would not be given the same legal protections her Bill grants to other vulnerable groups.
Endorsements for amending the law
For over twenty years, diverse groups across Canada have offered their endorsement for this important change to the Criminal Code, including:
Liberal Party of Canada Women's Caucus - 2009 Pink Book III
Liberal Party of Canada - Election platform 2008
Polish Canadian Women’s Federation
Canadian Teachers’ Federation
Ontario Federation of Labour
Ontario Public School Boards’ Association
Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness
Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario
Ontario Teachers’ Federation
Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association
Ontario Federation of Home & School Associations
Ontario Principals’ Council
Ontario Provincial Police
Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation
Ontario Student Trustees’ Association
James Flaherty, as Attorney General of Ontario
MPP Michael Bryant, as Liberal Attorney General Critic (Ontario)
B’nai Brith League for Human Rights
Law Reform Commission of Canada
Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women
National Action Committee on the Status of Women
Private Member’s Bill
In May 2005, Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre) tried to correct the situation by introducing a Private Member’s Bill which would amend Section 318(4) of the Criminal Code to read, “In this section, ‘identifiable group’ means any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin, sex or sexual orientation". He tried repeatedly to get his Bill passed, reintroducing it in each new Parliament, but without success, because the Conservatives blocked his efforts every time.
Federal Liberal Party Election Promise - 2008
When Stéphane Dion was leader of the Liberal party, they made a promise during the 2008 election campaign that their efforts to fight violence against women would “begin with an amendment to the Criminal Code to include ‘gender’ in the hate propaganda provisions to help end societal acceptance for those who would incite hatred against women”. (Richer, Fairer, Greener: An Action Plan for the 21st Century, Liberal Party of Canada, September 2008)
The Liberal Leader who replaced Mr. Dion, Michael Ignatieff, was silent on the issue during his brief tenure, but the Liberal Women’s Caucus did include changing the hate propaganda law in their 2009 Pink Book III.
Provincial and Territorial Attorneys General: Time for them to act
Prior to the May 2011 election, the three opposition parties, the Bloc, NDP and Liberals, could have passed a Private Member's Bill because they outnumbered the Conservatives. Now that the Conservatives have a majority government, an Opposition Private Member's Bill is pointless as the Conservatives previously defeated efforts by Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj to get his Bill passed.
It is now up to provincial and territorial Attorneys General to pressure the federal government to amend the law. In pursuit of that goal, a delegation met with Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley in June 2009 to enlist his support for this legislative change (click here for information on that meeting). To date, the Ontario Liberals have done nothing.
Bill C-254 (previously known as Bill C-385) - the number of the Bill changes each time it is introduced in Parliament, but the wording does not