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Judges' sexual assault training bill receives royal assent after clearing the Senate

New judges better trained

Rona Ambrose says she had no idea it would take so long and require such determination to see that new judges are properly trained in sexual assault law.

Four years and three attempts later, Bill C-3 received royal assent in Parliament on Thursday evening.

The legislation will require new federally appointed judges to agree to take training, including learning about rape myths and stereotypes and how to make sure biases about race, gender and other social factors do not influence their decisions.

It will also require judges to put their reasons on the record when ruling on sexual assault cases.

The legislation originated as a private member's bill that Ambrose presented in 2017 while she was interim Conservative leader, but after it received cross-partisan support in the House of Commons, it stalled in the Senate.

Ambrose said there were certain senators who purposely tried to hold up the bill with the intent of quashing it. These individuals, whom she did not name, posed questions and made statements about the bill that she says were sexist and misogynistic.

"There were senators who knew that they could hold it up. They said things like, 'This will sway the legal system in favour of victims,' which was the most bizarre thing I've ever heard because it was just about education, and things like, 'This is just another part of the Me Too movement,' " she said in an interview Friday.

"It was misogyny, without a doubt. Sexism and misogyny, and from corners I didn't expect."

The Liberal government supported her original bill, but because of the stalling tactics employed in the Senate, it died when Parliament was dissolved for the 2019 election.

The Liberals revived it last year, making it a government bill that could not be killed in the Red Chamber.

Justice Minister David Lametti said the new law will help ensure survivors of sexual assault are treated with respect and dignity in their interactions with the criminal justice system.

"We expect that these changes will have a broad and positive impact that reach beyond sexual assault matters," he said Friday.

"Judges will benefit from new tools and perspectives that they can apply in all of their work."

Lametti gave full credit to Ambrose for championing the passage of this legislation, which she has continued to do even though she is no longer involved in federal politics.

"Rona's ongoing support and collaboration were important to getting this bill through the parliamentary process, and I wanted to thank her, personally, for her commitment to this issue and to this legislation."

Looking back over the long road to royal assent, Ambrose said she was emotional when she learned the bill had finally passed.

Her thoughts were with the victims of sexual assault who have reached out to her over the last four years, many of whom disclosed their painful experiences, including triggering and re-victimizing ordeals within the justice system.

It was these women's stories that kept her driven to ensure federal judges are properly applying Canada's laws when it comes to sexual assault and rape victims.

"This isn't the be-all and end-all that's going to solve all kinds of things, this is just a small thing that we needed to do, but it's incredible that a small thing took so long to get done," Ambrose said.

"Because the truth is institutions are pretty opaque at times. We're seeing that with the military now too and with the RCMP — there are a lot of great things about our institutions, but willingness to reform themselves is not one of them."

The bill was sparked by some high-profile rulings that led to public outcry. Alberta judge Robin Camp asked a sexual-assault complainant in 2014 why she couldn't keep her knees together; Halifax judge Gregory Lenehan said "a drunk can consent" while acquitting a taxi driver of sexual assault on a passenger in 2017.

Camp resigned from the bench after the Canadian Judicial Council eventually recommended he be removed. Lenehan was cleared of misconduct, though a committee examining his decision said his words were "ill-considered."

The new law will only apply to federally-appointed judges and training will not be mandatory for those already on the bench, in order to respect the principle of judicial independence.

However, the training will be available for all judges who wish to take it, Lametti said.

"We can't force judges who are currently sitting to undergo training, but we do hope that this will create a positive environment to receive that training, and hopefully we will, with time in particular, have a much better-equipped bench that will instill confidence in Canadians."

Some provinces have begun taking steps toward adopting similar mandated or voluntary training programs for judges, including Prince Edward Island, which passed legislation in 2018, and Saskatchewan, which committed to developing a training program for judges, lawyers and other justice system professionals in 2019.

Ambrose said she hopes all the provinces and territories will pass legislation similar to the new federal law, although she is aware of intense push back from the legal and judicial community in many jurisdictions that has made this challenging.

She plans to continue working with any province that wish to make courtrooms a safer and more sensitive place for victims.

"Some of the things that judges have said and some of the mistakes that they've made are just unacceptable for people who hold those positions," Ambrose said.

"To me, the easiest way to rectify that is to make sure they have the right education and training, so yeah, I'm going to keep pushing for it at the provincial level because that's where a lot of these cases are."



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