Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity today to speak on Bill S-7. This bill contains measures to better protect women and girls in our country.
With this bill, our government is fulfilling a commitment made in the Speech from the Throne in October 2013. That commitment is to ensure that early and forced marriage and other harmful cultural practices, such as polygamist marriages and so-called honour-based violence, do not take place on Canadian soil. We see these activities as absolutely incompatible with Canadian values.
Today I would like to speak to the bill's proposed amendment to the provocation defence. I would like to address a number of misconceptions that have been expressed during debate on this bill.
A person who is found to have committed murder can raise the defence of provocation. They can raise, as a defence, that they killed the victim in the “heat of passion” brought on by “a wrongful act or insult” from the victim. The provocation, they can claim, would be sufficient to cause an ordinary person to lose self-control.
Much has been made of the fact that the defence has failed where it has been raised in the context of honour killings. While this may be the case to date, there is nothing preventing a court from accepting it in the future, and we would like to make sure that does not happen.
The defence has already been raised in at least three honour-killing prosecutions in Canada. The alleged provoking conduct in these cases was real or perceived marital infidelity and other conduct by the victim that the offender perceived as disrespectful or defiant toward them or their families. The particular three claims I mentioned failed owing to the inadequacy of supporting evidence in these cases.
The proposed amendment in Bill S-7 would modernize the defence. Under the bill, the defence of provocation would only be available to an accused found guilty of murder where the conduct of the victim that provoked the accused to kill amounted to a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of at least five years. In other words, it would be a serious offence. The reform would limit the defence so that it would no longer excuse murder where the provoking conduct of the victim was lawful.
In the Senate debates on this bill, some suggested that the defence of provocation is a long-standing and sound principle of criminal law that is operating in conformity with Canadian values and should not be changed. It was also suggested that the proposed reform would limit the defence to match.
Therefore, the question for us as legislators is whether modern Canadian values do in fact support showing compassion and leniency to those who kill in response to something they find insulting or offensive. I do not believe they do.
It is a different matter if the provoking behaviour is objectively serious and unacceptable, such as criminal conduct. The defence would still be permitted when the provocation was a physical assault or threat or some other serious form of criminality.
I think it is very important to understand the history of the provocation defence. We should also look at countries that share our common law tradition and at their experiences with this defence.
Historically, the defence of provocation emerged in the common law around the 16th century. Initially it was limited to certain categories of conduct, all related to men defending their honour, such as a spontaneous fight or an arranged duel. This also included what a man might do on finding another man committing adultery with his wife.
In the early common law, let us remember that a man's wife was his legal property. The initial provocation defence reflected this social and legal reality of the day, namely that adultery was “the highest invasion of property”, as per the Mawgridge case in 1707.
Therefore, a man who killed in response to adultery was considered less blameworthy. It may surprise some members to learn that in the history of our own common-law tradition the provocation defence was the original honour defence.
However, at some point in its history, the honour-related basis for provocation was replaced with the idea that the law should make some allowance for “human frailty”, where a person is provoked beyond the ability to exercise self-control. The specific categories of provoking conduct were eliminated and the provocation defence was made available more generally and broadly. The defence would succeed where a person killed after having lost self-control as a result of any kind of wrongful act or insult by the victim, so long as an ordinary person could also have been provoked to lose his or her self-control in the same circumstances even though not necessarily to the point of killing. This is the form of the provocation defence that was incorporated into Canadian law in the 1800s, and it remains unchanged today.
However, the use of this defence in the cases of so-called honour killings flies in the face of freedom of expression, a cornerstone of a free and democratic society. In order to protect freedom of expression, there is no room to make allowances for intentional killings on the basis of insult or offence. Allowing the provocation defence to be invoked in response to mere insults or offensive conduct is inconsistent with core Canadian values of freedom of expression, liberty and gender equality.
Both internationally and domestically, the provocation defence has been the subject of similar criticisms from a range of quarters in recent years. The Supreme Court of Canada has referred to these criticisms in some of its rulings, stating that only Parliament can address these concerns.
Many point out that the historic origins of the defence still operate to excuse male proprietary or possessory claims over women. This is clearly at odds with our modern values of gender equality and personal autonomy and freedom.
In the past decade, the legislatures of most jurisdictions with a common-law history similar to ours have acted to address some of these concerns. New Zealand and several Australian states have entirely abolished the defence. Most other Australian states have restricted the defence in some measure, as has the United Kingdom. Just last year, the Australian state of New South Wales reformed its provocation defence, including by limiting its scope to provoking conduct that would be a relatively serious criminal offence. This is the same approach proposed in Bill S-7.
Another question that was asked in the Senate was whether the proposed amendment would have the unintended consequence of taking a viable defence away from battered women who kill their abusers, but this is another misperception. In Canada, the provocation defence is rarely raised in these circumstances, but could still be raised if the woman was treated with criminal activity such as assaults or threats.
There are two primary objectives in this bill: the first to prevent the defence from being raised in the future before it is ever accepted by a court or a jury; and the second to modernize the defence more generally, so that it can no longer be used to excuse spousal homicides based on lawful conduct.
The time has come for Canada to bring our law of provocation out of the 17th century and align it with our modern values. Our women and girls deserve nothing less. I hope that all members will support this proposal and all of Bill S-7.