Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices

Published in Island Tides March 2015:

Years ago, when my daughter was about ten years old, we visited my relatives in Charleston, South Carolina.  I had not seen them in years – cousins of my mother who live in one of the most beautiful cities in North America.  My daughter had no memory of ever having met them.  Charleston still holds to its old traditions and one of them is the St. Cecilia Society and the indoctrination of children at a young age to the terrors of ballroom dancing.

We went with a dear elderly first cousin of my mother to watch her grandchildren as they danced to a scratchy recording of the fox trot.  Little boys and girls wearing white gloves made their way in awkward couplings around the centuries old ballroom.  I wondered if my daughter was wishing she had such opportunities.   As soon as we were out of earshot, she said, “Oh Mommy! How awful.  All those sweaty little boys. Those white gloves.  How barbaric!”

Well. Once again, our personal style guide and arbiter of all social and cultural norms, Stephen Harper, rides to the rescue with Bill S-7, “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.” 

The title is truly unbelievable.  It does not belong on a piece of legislation.  It belongs on a bumper sticker.

It is actually not a law to create “zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices.”  One can imagine any number of practices that one culture would view as barbaric as practiced by another.   This bill takes aim at practices related to marriage, forced marriage and polygamy.  The bill prohibits practices that are already illegal.

The first unacceptable aspect of this bill is that it started in the Senate (hence the designation S-7).  This is a frequent ploy by Harper’s PMO.  Starting bills in the Senate, the unelected upper chamber, especially when they actually originate from PMO, is offensive.  Keeping both House and Senate moving through legislation is one way Stephen Harper fast-tracks bills.  It is one of many types of contempt toward Parliament which is routine under this administration. 

The Conservative talking points stress the horrors of so-called “honour killings.”  And, of course, who could be in favour of honour killings?   It is long since time that we had a Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act to end this outrage on Canadian soil; except, of course, that murder by any name has always been illegal. 

The new law sets out that the “provocation” defence cannot be used by an accused in an honour killing.  Well and good except that no defendant has ever successfully used the provocation defence in an honour killing and no legal expert thinks the provocation defence would ever succeed in such a case. 

Polygamy must be made illegal.  Thank goodness for the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act; except that polygamy is already illegal; and so too is immigrating to Canada while practicing polygamy.  Any immigration official checks to see if potential immigrants are compliant with Canadian law.

So too is kidnapping someone to take them to another country for a polygamous forced union. Pretty sure kidnapping is already illegal.

In the Senate hearings, when poor hapless Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander had to feign high dudgeon at the wide range of despicable barbaric practices running rampant in Canada, Senator Art Eggleton challenged him, "You have current laws to deal with it, and you seem more focused on trying to bring a new law in when you have existing laws you could (use to) deal with these matters."

Here’s a good thing.  From now on, thanks to the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, Canadian marriages must be entered into only if consent is “free and enlightened.”  That would rule out a whole lot of marriages entered into by the unenlightened.   It will be an interesting set of tests for marriage commissioners.  Brittany Spears will be spared no end of heart-ache if she tries to get married in Canada. 

The reality is I will probably vote for this bill.  Its actual impact is negligible since it makes illegal things that are already illegal. Some groups serving low-income and marginal new Canadian groups fear that criminalizing forced marriage may make it harder to assist young girls and women who have a right to be free of such coercion, but, on balance, the bill is hard to oppose.  I just rebel at Parliament being used as a fear factory for over-torqued messaging.  Public policy and legislation should address real issues and problems that require a solution.  This is a non-problem in search of a bumper sticker.  


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  • commented 2015-10-02 23:25:33 -0700
    Yes, that’s my concern too. As you’ve pointed out, none of the actions outlined in the bill are legal. Bundling them together under an inflammatory title does nothing but promote xenophobia and racism, while making it more difficult to help women and girls in those situations. Why support it instead of pointing that out?