Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to all the members of the status of women committee for all the great work that you do. As the opposition critic for status of women, I watch closely and I wanted to commend you right off the bat for the great report you just produced. I thank you for all of your great efforts and advocacy inside and outside this House.
I would like to thank the committee for having me today. This is an excellent opportunity to talk about an issue that is extremely important, not just to me, but also to Canadians.
Now, this all started when I was a university student. I volunteered in my spare time at a rape crisis centre, and that obviously had a profound impact on me. But at the same time, I participated in a research project with another advocacy organization called the Status of Women Action Group. It was doing a lot of good work on behalf of women, but one of the projects they were working on was a court watch program. This was many years ago when I was in university in British Columbia. This project basically had student volunteers like me sitting in courtrooms during sexual assault and sexual abuse cases, taking notes about how victims and complainants were treated. It was shocking. The whole point of that program was to amass evidence necessary to convince, at that time, the British Columbia government to mandate training for judges on sexual assault and sexual abuse. Well, here we are many years later, and we still don't have that.
Some things have improved, but I think we have a long way to go. Some of the things that I saw in the courtroom were shocking then, and sadly we still see these kinds of things. I remember sitting in a courtroom taking notes when a prosecutor was questioning a little girl—when I say little girl, I mean under the age of 12—about how she sat on a defendant's lap. The insinuation was that she was flirting with this man who was in his fifties.
These kinds of stereotypes still exist, these kinds of mythologies continue, and we see them in our courtrooms. I don't have to raise some of the high-profile cases that you've seen. The truth is, the reason we know about those cases is that there happened to be a reporter in the room. That's the only reason we know. These kinds of things do go on day in and day out. I think there's an opportunity for us to make a change.
We've seen examples where judges seemingly didn't understand the law or didn't apply the law. It was as upsetting then as it is now. Unfortunately, as I said, it's still happening.
In the past few years, I have noted a disturbing number of sexual assault cases that have shaken the public's confidence in our justice system. These are cases in which those whom the justice system was supposed to serve, especially women who were victims of sexual assault, were harmed by comments, attitudes, or the application of the law.
What Bill proposes is very simple. First, the bill would require the Canadian judiciary to produce every year a report detailing how many judges have completed training in sexual assault law, how many cases were heard by judges who had not been trained, as well as a description of the courses that were taken. Second, it would require any lawyer applying for a position in the judiciary to have first completed sexual assault case training and education. Third, it would result in a greater number of written decisions from judges presiding over sexual assault trials.
Let me say how pleased I was to see your recent report, “Taking Action To End Violence Against Young Women and Girls in Canada”. I know that this report, in particular, touched on the need to improve training in the field of sexual assault law for the Canadian judiciary, so it seems that we're thinking along the same, parallel lines.
I wanted to point out that we really strived, in crafting this bill, to keep it effective, while keeping our measures within the realm of the possible. We know that the first test it needs to pass is to demonstrate that it does not interfere with a free and independent judiciary, and we believe it passes that test. These are changes that apply to federal law and are within Parliament's right to amend, namely the Judges Act and the Criminal Code. We do expect and welcome debate on this issue, but in my view, it's time this debate is held out in the open and with representation from all sides. Every time another story of a survivor's case being mishandled by our court system hits the news, there are questions whispered and fretted over, but rarely spoken aloud.
Allow me to address a few of them early on and to tell you where my colleagues and I fall on these issues.
There's a question that comes up quite often. Does this bill unfairly tip the balance in favour of the complainant? We would argue that it does not. The training proposed in this bill is intended to level the playing field. An accused does not have a right to use myths and stereotypes about the complainant. Canada's laws against sexual assault are robust, and there is a responsibility upon our judiciary to ensure that there is clear knowledge of the Criminal Code provisions intended to protect complainants from those myths and stereotypes. By increasing our judiciary's knowledge of Canada's sexual assault law, both sides benefit.
Another question I often encounter is why focus on sexual assault trials over other kinds of crime or assault? My answer, simply put, is because these trials are, in fact, different, and our system already acknowledges that.
We have family courts, youth courts, and courts specifically for drug-related offences. I see no reason not to recognize the distinct nature of sexual crimes as well.
In fact, amendments made to the Canadian Criminal Code in the 1980s took the important step of singling out crimes of this nature. I want to point out that in the U.K., our cousins in parliament, the chief justice actually uses a system called a “rape-ticketing” system, which only allows those who have been trained in sexual assault to oversee these trials. So they are a bit ahead of us.
Finally, while there is an assumption among the public that members of our judiciary are already trained in these sensitive areas of the law, the reality is only half true. Yes, there is training available. It's definitely not mandatory, and it is held over just a two-week period, and it covers multiple areas of law, from contract law to criminal law. Given the low rate of trust among Canadians, and specifically among those who have encountered our criminal justice system in connection with an act of sexual violence, it's clear that more must be done.
Ultimately, we want Canadians to have faith in their justice system. The judiciary, I believe, has not stepped up to ensure that all of its judges are trained and do not unintentionally or intentionally re-victimize sexual assault complainants or, frankly, any party involved in these types of proceedings. This bill would take steps to build a more accountable and transparent judiciary.
That's why we're here today, Madam Chair. I look forward to having a discussion and doing my best to answer all of your questions.
Thanks so much.
I'm open to anything that will provide judges with better training about gender-based violence. At the end of the day—and I'm sure all of you know this—judges are just lawyers who are appointed to the bench; they don't come with all the training.
Someone said to me the other day that it's the government's fault, that they should only appoint criminal lawyers. That's not necessarily what always happens. It's not always criminal layers who apply for the bench. We have people who have backgrounds in corporate law, and oil and gas law who are overseeing some of these trials. That's not good enough. They need to have the training in criminal law and particularly in these kinds of cases, I believe. We know from research that's conclusive now that these kinds of crimes and this kind of trauma, especially at a young age, have a massive impact on girls and women. We know that women who experience violence are at least twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues, and they deal with these issues for the rest of their lives.
Yes, there is a way that we can make this system much more responsive and effective for women. All you have to do is to look at the numbers of women who report, and talk to them. Everyone knows someone who has gone through this, but rarely do we know someone who took it to trial. Women don't even want to go to the police. Why? Because they feel humiliated and ashamed. It should be the perpetrator who feels ashamed and humiliated. Yet, we have a system in which, right from the get-go, women feel that their character is under assault.
There are a lot of ways. To your point about an amendment, I'm obviously open to looking at it anyway. Right now we need to get the Canadian Judicial Council and the judiciary to admit that they need more comprehensive training in this area, and it should be mandated.
After the bill was introduced—I think it was the next day or the day after that—the Judicial Council responsible for some of this pointed out that they do have some training and that they might look to make it mandatory.
That was a positive response, but I think that Canadians, who need to have more confidence in our judicial system, want to hear is, in fact, “We have very good comprehensive training and here's what it looks like. We've worked with experts to make sure it is the best possible training, and were offering it. We're not just offering it; we're mandating it, and we will make sure that before the Chief Justice assigns a case, the judge who oversees that case has taken that training.” I think that's what people want to hear. They expect that. I think people are shocked to find out that, in fact, this happens. Robin Camp is just one example, but to find out that there are judges who oversee these trials and don't actually have the training in sexual assault is shocking.
The law is one thing; the other is the rape mythology, the stereotypes. When you hear these kinds of commentaries, it's just a lack of understanding about the issues, and training goes a long way in explaining these kinds of issues. I think it's the least we can expect, and this is one area in which Parliament does have an opportunity to make a difference.
Right now, the only criterion to become a judge is that you've sat for 10 years or have been a lawyer for 10 years. That's in the Judges Act, but the whole point of the Judges Act was to create the criteria. There's no reason we can't add an amendment to the Judges Act to ask lawyers who want to become judges that they meet this kind of criterion. I think it's expected.
One of the things I would say is this. I know you have witnesses coming, and I would ask the committee, if you do have a chance, to talk to them about their interactions with the Judicial Council and others who put together the training for both lawyers and sitting judges.
My understanding right now is that there really is no interaction and no transparency. We can't even see the kind of training that's offered at this point, so experts have asked, “Can we at least look at it and give you some advice on whether or not this is the most up-to-date, best kind of training?”
I think it would be a great step in the right direction for the training to be transparent and that they be willing to work with experts. A lot has changed over the last number of years in the understanding of the impact and trauma of sexual assault, and even of how sexual assault victims go through the experience or report the experience. A lot of times, they report it by way of sound and what they hear, not so much in a linear way.
There are all kinds of ways in which we could raise awareness and understanding among those who deal with victims of sexual assault, to help them understand why they are reacting the way they react as they go through the process.
Those are just a few examples. At the end of the day, I think everybody expects that if you are a professional doing a job, you should be trained.
I think it takes just one comment like some of the high-profile comments we've heard to make victims decide that this isn't a route they're going to take. It was already bad enough before the advent social media, but now it's widespread. Some of these comments are widespread. Just imagine the impact these have on a victim who's thinking about reporting.
We already know that we have issues at the policing level just in terms of training. When a victim goes through all of those steps, and then to think of going through the court and trial process, it is a re-victimization. It takes a lot of courage to do that and to go through the process, and then to think that you might be in front of either a prosecutor or a judge who doesn't understand the law and might make a comment like that.... Really, at the end of the day, it's about attacking the character of the complainant.
To be honest, I think it's ridiculous that we have a situation where people aren't trained and they're dealing with issues like this that are extremely traumatic for people.
It's timely. I saw an article the other day where someone wrote that these kinds of issues should be left up to judges to make the decisions. They're human beings, and we see these kinds of issues.... Again, I'll reiterate that the only reason we know about some of these cases is that there happened to be a reporter sitting in a courtroom.
Again, often these are oral decisions, not written decisions. When they're oral decisions, yes, they're transcribed, but if you want to get access to that document, usually you have to go through the FOIP process. You have to pay for it. It's cumbersome, even if you're trying to do research on the accumulation of these kinds of comments. There's a woman—I think it's Dr. Craig—at Dalhousie who has spent a fortune just in trying to accumulate the kind of information and research that goes to make the case that we need better training.
We need to see more written decisions and more transparency. Frankly, the Judicial Council should just step up and say that we're going to have better training, it's going to be transparent, we're going to work with experts to make sure it's good, and we're going to mandate it.
Thank you, MP Ambrose, for bringing this forward.
On the New Democrat side, absolutely, we've been calling for some time for that federal leadership to try to bring some uniformity to how every element of the justice system interacts with sexual assault victims. We've certainly been hearing a lot of testimony at this committee, in a whole range of areas, that victims have a very uneven experience. Also, thank goodness for The Globe and Mail, for really sounding the alarm on the rate of unfounded sexual assault cases.
I'm going to talk for a minute about my own riding. It turns out that Nanaimo, where I was elected, has the lowest rate of unfounded cases in the country. Only four out of 114 allegations were dismissed as unfounded. The fantastic NGOs in my community think their work has something to do with that. Actually, I'm extrapolating that. They're not bragging quite that much.
The Haven Society, the Nanaimo Women's Resource Centre, and the family access centre in Nanaimo have all worked together to partner with the Nanaimo RCMP. In British Columbia, police services are delivered by the RCMP. They attend an orientation. They believe victims because of the training they've received. They've also worked together to establish community coordination for domestic safety that includes the crown and corrections, so that everybody who has some handle on the justice system within the city of Nanaimo works together. They also have a domestic violence unit, which is a formal partnership with the RCMP. We're getting good results in working together and having a consistent approach to training.
I'm hoping that you can talk a bit about how a model like that might give us hope that training at the judicial level also might also get us better results, better justice for victims, and a better experience, so that victims of sexual assault are more willing to go through the process in good faith. Also, what can you tell me about how the experience of front-line organizations might be able to inform this training that you'd like to see delivered?
First of all, thank you for the support of the NDP, and particularly the support of your leader, , who has been instrumental in supporting this bill and moving it forward. I can't thank him enough. He was amazing to help out. I know how important it is to him and to your party.
You hit the nail on the head. The reason it's working in your riding with the help of your NGOs—and I'm sure the police in your riding would say the exact same thing—is partnership and the fact they're learning from one another. The police want this kind of support; they want this kind of help in training. There is no doubt about it and they are equally frustrated. I have spoken to a number of police who say they do all that hard work to get it to the next stage, then they deal with some of these issues themselves in the courtrooms, and they see it all fall apart for the victims they are trying to support.
It's at every level and it's wonderful that in Nanaimo there is such a partnership, but these organizations on the front lines know the issues. They know them first hand, since they're the ones who have been part of a lot of the good research. They have developed good training over the years and they know it works, so it just makes sense. My hope is that when you have witnesses come forward and we talk about this kind of training, we will find a way to provide them with access to see the training that's happening—and not only that, but also that they may have some kind of role to play in either helping to develop the training or just being able to comment on the training and to give advice about the kind of training people are taking.
Right now, there is training available, but it's minimal, it's not mandatory, and it doesn't go into the depths that we expect it to. We are very thankful for those places where those partnerships work. Sometimes it takes leadership from an NGO. It takes leadership from the police to create that, but we need to see that across the whole country.
Some statistics show that one in three women will suffer sexual violence in their lifetime. When you think about the unfounded cases, it really blew everyone out of the water to see those numbers, and then you have the police who are faced with that. Some police forces have said they are going to review these cases again. Okay, but now let's look at them with a fresh set of eyes, which is good, but a really trained, educated, and aware set of eyes is even better. Here is a great opportunity to get the organizations, like the ones you and I have worked with, to come and help. They are so willing to do that.
This is a good opportunity for people to come together and talk about what this training needs to look like. It's not just at the judicial level; it's at the police level as well. I know that you and I talked about what we can do. I've posed the question twice now to the about what we can do, at least in the federal realm. Can we have mandatory training for RCMP? Is there something we can do to increase the level of understanding, at least in the RCMP?
This is a conversation we need to be having at all levels, because it concerns 50% of the population and has an impact on millions of women. There are effects on the mental health of women and on their careers and relationships. This kind of trauma lasts a lifetime.
Thank you, Ms. , for being here and for bringing this bill forward. As you mentioned, our committee recently studied this issue and came up with what I'm really proud of, recommendations for the government.
Our government is also really committed to this issue. Our is also the first full minister for the status of women. She has been travelling the country working on a gender-based violence strategy, as you know. It's something that we're quite committed to.
With regard to your bill, the preamble talks about the judge's interpretation of the law. I want to talk a little bit about the actual appointments, because I see extraordinarily poor judicial appointments as a real issue. One thing we have done since taking government is to reconstitute the judicial advisory committee. It's unprecedented now in its diversity. It has 70% women, and for the first time ever they're receiving training on diversity, unconscious bias, and the assessment of merit.
When we look at former Justice Robin Camp, he admitted that he had very limited knowledge of criminal law. His background was in bankruptcy in oil and gas. In 2014 he stated that the victim should just keep her legs together or sink her bottom into a bathroom sink to avoid being raped. That was in 2014, and yet former Minister of Justice appointed him to serve in the Federal Court in 2015. That was after he made those statements. So I mean....
To expect that people who are involved in the justice system have the appropriate training seems a no-brainer to me. That someone would say that somehow this would bias the system is ludicrous. We're talking about basic knowledge of the law in sexual assault, and then furthermore, a level of comprehension and understanding of rape mythology, stereotypes, and language—all of these things. It's not present right now.
I've spoken to a lot of people in the system who would welcome this, who think it's a wonderful idea, that it's a long time in coming and will be a good thing. These people are judges, lawyers, police, and advocates.
I can't see why we wouldn't do something such as this. But no, it's not about creating bias; it's about creating a more informed, educated, trained, and transparent system.
On the issue of the court watch program, that was just an example. I've done lots of advocacy work in my life, but that just happened to be one project I was involved in. In every single case that we sat in on, we heard things such as that, particularly around sexual abuse cases. Those stereotypes are still prevalent. That's the problem with stereotypes and myths: unless people learn differently, they bring that to the courtroom. So I think training goes a long way, and that's what this is about. It's about making our system more transparent.
Really, to be honest, for me it's about building confidence. Women do not have confidence in our justice system when it comes to sexual assault law.
Written decisions are of higher quality. That's the bottom line.
When a judge, like any person, has to write out their arguments, they do it in a more thoughtful way. The hope is that they'll use more thoughtful language, because a lot of times when we see these things happen, it's in oral decisions.
Another issue is that complainants want to have a record of the decision. We've heard from various advocacy groups who emphasize how important it is for complainants to have a copy of the decision. Currently if a judge gives a decision orally, a complainant leaves the courtroom with no record of what they've just been through. Obviously, with the traumatic nature of the proceedings, complainants want to be able to review that, especially after the fact, when a lot of times they can process it more easily. When they do want to have access to an oral decision, they have to jump through all kinds of hoops, and it's also costly to get a copy of the trial proceedings. That's just one issue.
It's also about increasing transparency. When a decision is written, it's much more accessible or available not just to complainants but also to researchers, advocates, and academics who are trying to do work in this area. Also, as I said earlier, on, sometimes the only reason we know these things are happening is that reporters in the courtroom heard it and wrote about it. Written decisions also ensure that decisions can be scrutinized by the public and the parties to the case. This is an area where we need more scrutiny. There is no doubt about it.
I think there are concerns about written decisions being more costly. My hope is that at least we will have more written decisions. If that is a huge cost burden, then I hope that oral decisions will at least be transcribed and be readily available, that you don't have to go through a FOIP system—freedom of information—and that you don't have to pay for it. I particularly hope that the complainant does not have to pay to get access to these records and decisions. There are ways in which I think we could make the system much more accessible and transparent.