Conservatives grandstanding with law against ‘barbaric practices’

Redundant bill duplicates existing legislation while propagating xenophobia
Photo: michael_swan

This past week, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced a bill that would protect Canadians from child, forced or polygamous marriages, as well as gender-based family violence such as “honour killings.”

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Calling such practices “incompatible with Canadian values,” he then proceeded — with great pomp and fanfare — to refer to the bill as Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices.

Sadly, aside from the fact that the bill’s name cringingly reminded me of Borat’s Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the bill is more about grandstanding and pandering to voters than it is about taking concrete measures for change. In fact, it’s eerily reminiscent of Herouxville’s Code of Conduct and the PQ-proposed Charter of Quebec Values, both of which pretend to find solutions for non-existent problems.

If the bill becomes law, Alexander claims, it would eliminate early and forced marriages from Canada and would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, making permanent residents or temporary residents inadmissible if they practice polygamy in Canada.

The bill would also amend the Civil Marriage Act to ban marriage for anyone under the age of 16 and change the Criminal Code to impose a maximum five-year prison term on anyone who “celebrates, aids or participates” in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons is being married against their will or is not of legal age.

Sounds like the government is batting down the hatches, taking concrete measures and drawing a line in the sand, right?

Well, actually no.

For starters, legislation protecting us from those practices already exists. Polygamy is already illegal in Canada, most provinces already forbid marriage before the age of 16, and those pesky so-called honour killings? They’re just commonly referred to as murder in this country, and, despite my limited legal education, I’m pretty confident that’s already illegal here.

The act, by the way, of a man killing his girlfriend or wife for shaming him by leaving a relationship, is also quite common here. Every six days a woman is murdered by her partner in this country. We just don’t like to call them honour killings unless they involve someone who looks and prays differently than us.

The fact that Minister Alexander felt the need to cite the multiple murders in 2009 of female members of the Shafia family, as an example (and, perhaps, justification) of the type of honour killings we need to prevent through this legislation, baffled me. All three guilty parties are currently serving first-degree murder sentences, so it’s pretty obvious we already crack down on murder. What more could this new bill do?

As for polygamy, Section 293 of the Criminal Code explicitly bans it and threatens offenders with a five-year prison term. Yet, despite the legislation, there hasn’t been a successful prosecution for polygamy in Canada for more than 60 years.

While the minister says there are “at least hundreds” of cases of immigrants in polygamous marriages in Canada (even though no official statistics are kept), what he failed to say is that the vast majority of polygamists can be found in Bountiful, BC, where two Mormon religious sects (the vast majority of them Canadian residents) have resided for decades.

And while the Conservatives may want to target polygamy, a 2005 report by the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre recommended that Canada decriminalize it, stating that “criminalization is not the most effective way of dealing with gender inequality in polygamous and plural union relationships” and arguing whether it’s even constitutional, given that many polygamous and polyamorous relationships are consensual.

So, while inflammatory language against “barbarism” quickly elicited the predictable accolades by many Conservative supporters (after all, as Minister Alexander proudly reminded us in his statement, “Canada is the land of equality and opportunity — the true North, strong and free”), a more critical stance reveals the bill to be more of a slogan and less of a solution, while also frustratingly redundant.

What’s the point of such a bill, if legislation against such practices already exists?

The clue lies in the language used.

Targetting “barbarism” is to purposefully and strategically point an accusatory finger at recently arrived “others,” while conveniently and hypocritically forgetting the high tolerance we already seem to have for gender-based violence in this country.

The bill’s name is extremely xenophobic and dangerously ethnocentric, and just like Herouxville’s Code of Conduct (which aimed, among other things, to outlaw stoning in a town that doesn’t have a single immigrant) and the Charter of Quebec Values (which aimed to remove ostentatious religious symbols from public servants, while a giant cross still remained in the Quebec National Assembly), it seeks to divide between “them” and “us” and targets problems that are pretty much non-existent in this country.

What it does do is pander to certain Canadians’ increasing discomfort and uneasiness with multiculturalism and religious accommodations. If you’re of the belief that the influx of immigrants is endangering something that you value and have to fight for, then you’re the prime target and welcome recipient of such hyperbolic fearmongering.

Calling polygamy, honour killings, and gender-based domestic abuse “barbaric” is to feed on that fear and uneasiness new arrivals breed in some people, who conveniently forget that with the exception of Aboriginal communities, we’re all immigrants here. Calling them “barbaric practices” is to seek to elevate us to the status of the civilized preaching to the uncivilized who don’t know any better, which is both highly sanctimonious and simply untrue.

I'm tired of hearing people lament that our welcoming and tolerant nature here will be our downfall and will allow “evildoers” to get their way. Aside from the fact that it's a humblebrag of the worst kind, it's also disingenuous. It’s actually incredibly difficult to immigrate here, and it’s become even more difficult under the Conservative government.

We have laws protecting us from what we as a society have deemed undesirable. If those laws have loopholes, strengthen them. If those laws lack substance and are too difficult to enforce, question why that is.

But to table a brand new bill that carries the name Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices, which contains absolutely nothing new and blatantly targets Muslim immigrants (who already bear the brunt of xenophobia around the world, thanks to people unable to distinguish between the religion of Islam and radical Islamism) is both unfair and politically opportunistic.

It reeks of easy pre-electoral vote pandering and emotional manipulation, and I for one would like to see zero tolerance for those things.

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