OTTAWA — The Canadian government has to answer to the findings of two nurses who told a United Nations committee this week that women and girls in Canada are facing abuse so extreme it amounts to torture, Conservative MP Arnold Viersen says.
Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, nurses and human-rights advocates from Nova Scotia, appeared before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva earlier this week in hopes of pressuring Canada to amend the Criminal Code to include “non-state torture” as a distinct crime.
“What they’re seeing demands a response from the government,” said Viersen.
MacDonald said she read the committee an account from a woman who reported having been trafficked by her parents to friends and strangers from the time she was a child.
“On the boat he would get the shock things out (electric shocking), throw you down … hits you, make all kinds of bruises with tools like whips, chains, knives, and guns (physical torture). He blindfolds you so you don’t know what he’s doing (psychological torture). He sticks a broken bottle in your ribs and sucks the blood. He says ‘smile’,” the woman’s story said.
The abuse they’re talking about is protracted and often perpetrated by victims’ relatives, friends of family members, human traffickers, and johns who want very violent sex. MacDonald said that because non-state torture is not identified as a separate crime, there is no data to show how widespread the problem is.
Some cases have been heard in court: an Ottawa public servant who died after her husband poured boiling water over her after months of physical and emotional abuse; a teenage boy shackled and starved in a basement by his father; a woman trafficked for the sex trade in Winnipeg, locked in a freezer repeatedly until she passed out.
Felice Gaer, an independent expert member of the UN committee and an American human-rights activist, told Canadian officials appearing in Geneva that the committee had heard “rather gripping information” from MacDonald and Sarson about the forms of abuse that children have endured and questioned whether anyone is responsible for collecting formal data.
Viersen, an Alberta MP, said he supports the nurses’ work and that what they have witnessed among victims is the result of a “lack of value in humanity.”
The federal government’s position is that expanding the Criminal Code to include “non-state torture” would conflict with Canada’s obligations under international laws that specify that torture is a crime carried out by a government.
Viersen said the argument has merit, but he’s not convinced that MacDonald and Sarson are dogmatic about exactly how the law changes.
“As long as we can get the idea of what they’re trying to grapple with — that there is something that goes beyond assault that is torture,” he said.
Viersen has been pushing for legislation to control violent pornography and advocates say the issues are related: perpetrators of extreme long-term abuse are often consumers of violent porn.
Viersen said if the government is opposed to expanding the Criminal Code to include “non-state torture,” it should consider an alternative word that would capture what women say they experience.
“I like the word ‘torture’ in the fact that it elicits a response — we all know what that means. Every time you get the lawyers involved they’ll tell you that a particular word that you think means one thing actually means something else,” he said. “But I applaud these ladies and I would like to see the government have a response to them.”
Celia Canon, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said her office had nothing to say following the nurses’ testimony.
Earlier this week Canon said creating the offence of private torture could “seriously weaken” Canada’s contribution to the international effort to prevent torture under the Convention against Torture, because it could confuse the existing definition of torture as an act carried out by someone working for a government.
She also said the Criminal Code already contains numerous crimes of assault, including sexual assault.
“In other words, the Criminal Code already contains crimes that capture the kind of conduct associated with private torture, most notably the crimes of aggravated assault and aggravated sexual assault, while existing sentencing provisions already provide a range of aggravating factors that could apply in a case of private torture,” Canon said.
Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press