Liberals revive Rona Ambrose’s bill on sexual assault law training for judges

OTTAWA — The Liberal government has tabled legislation to help ensure judges are trained in sexual assault law — a bill that mirrors one originally championed by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.

The new bill, if passed, would require all newly appointed provincial superior court judges to receive the 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 decision-making.

Justice Minister David Lametti said the legislation could boost confidence in the justice system for sexual assault survivors and the Canadian public.

“This is a necessary bill. This is a bill that will make our system more just,” Lametti told reporters Tuesday in Ottawa.

“In this day and age, it is critical that all of us who serve the public are equipped with the right tools and understanding to ensure everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

The proposed legislation would also require the Canadian Judicial Council to report on ongoing efforts to provide similar training to sitting judges and it would change the Criminal Code to ensure judges are putting their reasons on the record when they decide sexual assault cases.

These measures add accountability and give those already serving as judges an incentive to take part in sexual assault legal training, Lametti says.

The proposed legislation revives a private member’s bill originally put forward by Ambrose when she was interim Conservative leader.

That bill had cross-partisan support, but after being stalled in the Senate, died when Parliament dissolved ahead of the federal election.

Ambrose blamed a “group of old boys” in the Senate for blocking passage of the bill, a group that included mainly Conservative senators.

Now that it has been reintroduced as a government bill, it will have more heft, Ambrose says.

“It makes a big difference in how the Senate can treat it and how serious, even, stakeholders will take it,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

“That the justice minister stood up and said this is necessary sends a huge message … Every judge in this country is hearing this today.”

Far too many women simply do not report these crimes and far too many women have experienced negative outcomes in courtrooms when they do, Ambrose said

She pointed to the trial for the 2011 death of Cindy Gladue, a Metis and Cree woman from Edmonton. The jury repeatedly heard Gladue referred to as a “prostitute” and a “native” in the courtroom. The trial ended in an acquittal. The Supreme Court ruled in May 2019 that the accused should be retried for manslaughter, but not first-degree murder.

In its ruling, the high court said evidence about Gladue’s sexual history was mishandled and that trial judges should caution juries against relying on prejudices against Indigenous women and girls.

“That is not appropriate language and that is clear in the law, so the judge didn’t actually know the law,” Ambrose said.

Judges are the ultimate arbiter of what happens in a courtroom, so they are the ones who can put a stop anything said or done that violates victims’ rights.

“That’s why I targeted judges because they are the most senior people and they oversee the trials,” Ambrose said.

She thanked politicians of every political stripe in the House of Commons, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, former NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who co-sponsored her original private member’s bill, and others for supporting this initiative as a way to support vulnerable women to feel more confident to report sexual assault crimes.

She says she hasn’t spoken to her Conservative senators to determine if they will try to block this new bill, but she remains optimistic they will see the wide support for the bill.

“I think we’ve made the case that Canadians support this bill wholeheartedly … and I think we’ll continue to make our case to those who might not believe it’s not necessary.”

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