OTTAWA — The House of Commons has unanimously approved in principle — for the third time — a bill that would require judges to commit to take training in sexual assault law.
Bill C-3 will now be scrutinized by the Commons justice committee, which could yet propose amendments.
The proposed legislation originated as a private member’s bill from former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, which the Liberal government supported.
It was unanimously approved by the Commons but stalled in the Senate and died when Parliament was dissolved for last fall’s election.
Ambrose blamed “the old boys’ club protecting the old boys’ club” for throwing up procedural roadblocks, while Conservative senators said they were prioritizing government legislation as the clock ran out.
The Liberals revived Ambrose’s effort as a government bill in February. It won unanimous support in principle and was under study by the justice committee when the Commons was adjourned in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That bill ultimately died when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August but has now been resurrected once again.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had said his party would support the latest iteration of the bill but his MPs refused over the past few weeks to cut short opening debate on it, prompting some suspicions among the Liberals that not all Tory MPs were on side.
Those suspicions were further fuelled last week when Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner questioned the merit of mandating sensitivity training for judges about sexual assault.
“Why are we appointing people who need this training to begin with? This bill gets it wrong,” she wrote on Twitter.
In the end, however, the bill passed at second reading Monday by a vote of 327-0 — with all Conservatives, including Rempel Garner supporting it.
Shortly before the vote, Justice Minister David Lametti urged O’Toole to “show leadership” and persuade all his MPs to support the bill.
“In the last Parliament, this bill had all-party support in the House. I have been discouraged to hear some Conservative members criticize C-3 as unnecessary,” he said.
Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef said the bill is not just about correcting the behaviour of some “bad apples” on the bench.
“It will help all of us do right by survivors of gender-based violence,” she said, adding that “even the best judges” can benefit from training aimed at exploding “deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs” about survivors of sexual violence.
Bill C-3 would require new federally appointed judges to agree to take training, including learning about rape myths and stereotypes and how to make sure biases about race, gender and other social factors do not influence their decisions. It would also require judges to put their reasons on the record when ruling on sexual assault cases.
Ambrose’s original bill was sparked by some high-profile rulings, including Alberta judge Robin Camp asking a sexual assault complainant in 2014 why she couldn’t keep her knees together and Halifax judge Gregory Lenehan ruling that “a drunk can consent” while acquitting a taxi driver of sexual assault on a passenger in 2017.
The Canadian Judicial Council has expressed concern that judicial independence will be compromised if the federal government passes a law mandating new judges to take training in sexual assault law.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2020.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press