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Senator Plett peaks to Bill C-3, expressing support for Sen Boisvenu’s amendment

May 6, 2021 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:

Honourable senators, I also rise to speak to Senator Boisvenu’s amendment. I want to thank Senator Boisvenu for taking the initiative of bringing this amendment forward, and I want to thank Senator Batters for her words today.

It is no secret to most in this chamber that I have some concerns with this legislation. I was not quite on the same page as Senators Boisvenu and Batters throughout the debate on Bill C-3, but I do support the intent. I have concerns with this legislation, as I have had with all previous iterations. As I said, that is not because I do not support the intent of the initiative. I believe that the justice system needs to operate in such a way that it supports victims of sexual violence and encourages them to come forward. We have all heard the egregious comments made to sexual assault victims by judges that are simply appalling and that are clearly based on stereotypes and ignorance of a complex subject matter.

Studies have shown the chilling effect those comments and the entire process has had on the likelihood of victims coming forward. That is unacceptable.

However, I do believe in the vital importance of the independence of the judiciary, and I remain concerned about the impact Bill C-3 could have on this independence. When Justice J. Michael MacDonald, the former Executive Director of the Canadian Judicial Council, testified at the House of Commons Justice Committee, he said that it is essential for the kinds of education and training judges should have to remain entirely within the purview of the judiciary. He noted the dangerous precedent this bill could set by permitting future governments to have the ability to make politically driven directives to the judiciary. He said:

The concern is that in 20 years from now, if the government of the day were to direct judges to learn about the myth of residential schools . . . you would want the judiciary to stand bravely, courageously, and say, “You can’t tell us what we have to learn. If you tell us what we have to learn, you tell us what we have to think, arguably.”

Likewise, Chief Justice Wagner of the Supreme Court of Canada stated in February of 2020:

The judiciary, as a collective, has to be free to decide what training and education judges receive to do their jobs well.

The Canadian Bar Association, among others, raised similar concerns when they testified at the Senate committee.

Of course, there were some witnesses, including the National Judicial Institute, who do not share this concern and who believe this bill strikes an appropriate balance.

Colleagues, for those reasons, I remain undecided as to whether I will support the legislation at the final vote. However, I do believe it is incumbent upon this chamber to ensure that we try to improve every piece of legislation that we have before us to the best of our ability.

Senator Boisvenu has brought forward an amendment that is supported by the testimony of victims who were able to demonstrate precisely how judicial education on matters of domestic violence could prevent violent attacks and save lives. The testimony of these brave women was gut-wrenching and compelling. Most witnesses supported this important inclusion and even explicitly pleaded with the Senate to make this change in their testimony.

I find it troubling to see some senators tell these witnesses that if the amendments they are advocating for were to pass, it would risk killing the bill, essentially putting the onus of the bill’s passage on witnesses, in an attempt to have them withdraw their support for such an amendment — shameful. The witnesses we hear from at committee are not there to weigh in on legislative timelines. They are there to offer their opinions on the legislation itself.

I found this line of questioning both inappropriate and misleading. This amendment, while quite possibly being very impactful, is not highly technical and would not require an abundance of time to consider. For those who support this legislation, this amendment is almost a no-brainer, considering the broad support of this legislation in the House of Commons and, I believe, the broad support in this chamber.

I do not understand why a very simple amendment would put this bill in such peril. I find this especially perplexing as the government and its representative were eager and willing to accept major, sweeping complex amendments to the assisted dying bill only a couple of weeks ago. As I was trying to ask Senator Gagné, this was a complex bill that had a timeline, and yet the government managed to get it done. The approval of an amendment like this should take very little time in both chambers and should not have much impact on the timeline at all.

Here we are, on May 6. We’re going to vote on this bill today. This bill will go over to the other place if there is an amendment. Next week they can deal with this bill. This does not need to take any time, colleagues. And for the deputy leader to use that as part of her argument, that the bill may fail because we don’t have time to deal with it — we’re working on the government’s timeline. If they want to take the time to pass it, they can do that.

If we are not obligated to consider improving legislation in this chamber, and witnesses are being discouraged from suggesting such improvements, what, colleagues, are we doing here? What was the point of our committee hearings? What is the purpose of these debates if our role is to simply act as a rubber stamp?

I would like to ask the government leader and his deputy leader when they were told to oppose all amendments. How long ago were they told to oppose amendments — before they even knew what the amendments were? The argument is that the stakes are simply too high to risk killing the legislation. But is that the case? What would the impact be on survivors of sexual assault? The National Judicial Institute, the body responsible for judicial education, informed the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee that from 2014 to last March, they delivered 51 sessions, either large programs that were dedicated solely to sexual assault cases or sessions in other programs. They delivered 51 of those sessions in the last six years. In addition, they delivered 21 sessions on issues that touch sexual assault cases, like domestic violence, human trafficking, victims’ rights and trauma-informed treatment.

When Justice Adèle Kent from the National Judicial Institute was asked by Senator Campbell how this would change the training they are already undertaking, she responded:

In one respect, I would suggest that the training will continue to evolve the way it has, and in one way, I might say, it would make no difference. But I have to say that since 2017, when Ms. Ambrose introduced Bill C-337, the dialogue between the judiciary, the legislature and the dialogue that we have had with representatives of victims’ groups and so on has been valuable.

In essence, she says nothing would change, but the conversations that they have had as a result of Rona Ambrose’s bill in 2017 have been valuable and have informed the evolution of their training.

Colleagues, I am failing to see the reason for us to refrain from amending this bill, an amendment that victims of family and domestic violence are asking for, when Justice Kent’s comments demonstrate that the significance of this bill will be largely symbolic and will make no difference to the existing training on the topic of sexual assault.

There have been times when we have passed flawed legislation, colleagues, because missing a looming deadline could have dire consequences. For example, many of the government’s recovery packages for Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic have been flawed beyond all measure, but we have passed them because of deadlines.

However, with sexual assault training continuing regardless of this bill’s passage, the same pressures are simply not there. If it is Parliament’s will to proceed with prescribing the topics judges must be educated on, then I believe we owe it to the victims of domestic violence to get this legislation right. There is no reason, colleagues, that this amendment process would have to be onerous or lengthy. If the government can pass an amendment enabling access to assisted suicide for mental illness in mere hours, it is nonsensical to suggest that a bill that had unanimous support in the House of Commons would require lengthy debate on a very simple, straightforward amendment.

I believe that in supporting this amendment we are fulfilling our role as the chamber of sober second thought, and I would like to commend Senator Boisvenu for his admirable continued work in support of victims of violence and family violence. Thank you.

Senator Plett's speech can also be found here. 


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