Monday, November 20, 2000

Charlie Gillis

p. A1.

Canada cited for child-sex hypocrisy

A 'venue' for exploitation: Liberals never delivered on promises to fight abuse: report

Regressive age-of-consent laws, flawed legislation and an overall lack of planning by the federal government are turning Canada into a venue for the sexual exploitation of children, rather than a global leader in combatting the problem, an international report has found.

The report, to be released today in Winnipeg, identifies many ways in which Canada has failed its promise to fight child sex abuse, prostitution and pornography — despite a sweeping commitment to do so by Lloyd Axworthy, the then foreign minister, during a global conference on the issue in 1996.

Ottawa has yet to deliver on Mr. Axworthy's commitment to a "plan of action to stop the victimization of innocent children" at the World Conference on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Sweden, the report noted.

The findings were compiled by the committee to End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT), one of three international agencies that organized the Stockholm conference.

The 178-page report, titled "Looking Back, Thinking Forward," was funded by the European Union and the Swedish International Development Agency as part of an ongoing plan to monitor the responses of countries that participated in the conference.

The organization surveyed 124 nations, rating them on the plans, monitoring systems and legislative measures they have enacted to fight exploiters of children. Its information came from a variety of government and non-government sources in each nation, including human rights groups, victims' advocates and legislative committees.

While Canada received credit for trying to pass a law to combat child pornography, the report found its overall performance lags behind many other industrialized and developing nations.

Under the Stockholm conference resolutions, for example, each country agreed to set up its own action plan to identify and correct weaknesses in its justice and social systems that lead to child exploitation.

Germany, Australia and even Mexico — historically a haven for child pornographers — rank among those that honoured their commitment.

The Liberal government in Ottawa said it had been stymied by complications arising from shared jurisdiction over justice, education and social services with the provinces. Instead, it settled for a monitoring system under which provincial governments report their own responses.

"I'm very disappointed," said Mark-Erik Hecht, an Ottawa-based lawyer who sits on ECPAT's board of directors and a contributor to the report. "There's no vision. The national plan of action should show us where we want to get to."

Worse, some measures Ottawa has taken — including its vaunted anti-child pornography law — appear to be in danger of annulment by courts or irrelevance because they are flawed, the study noted.

Among other examples, the report points to the B.C. Court of Appeal decision striking down the anti-child porn law in order to protect the constitutional guarantee of free expression.

The case, involving child porn collector John Robin Sharpe, has been heard by the Supreme Court of Canada last January and a decision is expected shortly. ECPAT executives have previously argued in favour of enacting the constitution's notwithstanding clause should the high court strike down the law for good.

The study also raises the apparent failure of Ottawa's much-trumpeted sex tourism law, which was supposed to allow authorities here to charge Canadians who sexually exploit minors abroad.

The legislation's weakness was highlighted last August when an Alberta high school teacher who allegedly fondled one of his Canadian students during a school trip escaped charges because the decision to prosecute allegations of sexual interference or exploitation of children is left to the foreign government. In this case, Costa Rica did not ask Canada to proceed.

Moreover, the report notes, Canada continues to issue passports and criminal pardons to sex offenders, opening the door for them to cross international borders to exploit children abroad.

But the issue raised by the report that concerns child advocates most is Canada's murky stance on the age of sexual consent. While many countries are raising the age of consent in order to protect children, Canada's remains at 14, except in cases where the adult holds a position of authority over the minor. In those cases, the age is 18.

The result, according to the report, is the growing stature of some Canadian cities as sex tourism "hot spots," as well as the increasing recruitment of children to the sex trade; Vancouver is especially at risk because of its large population of homeless children and its proximity to sex trade centres on the Pacific Rim.

"We're sending a very mixed message with our age of consent," Mr. Hecht said. "Canada has historically been a sender of sex tourists to other countries. The country has recently developed a reputation as a receiving country for sex tourists."

Rosalind Prober, co-founder of the Winnipeg-based child protection group Beyond Borders, hopes the report will push child abuse on to the agenda of the federal election campaign. "I think this report will help tell Canadians what the important issues are."

Debbie Mahaffy, whose daughter Leslie was tortured and murdered by sex killer Paul Bernardo, described the country's lack of co-ordinated action as "mind-boggling."

"We don't seem to have a problem getting people's attention when it comes to protecting them from violence," said Ms. Mahaffy, who works for the Ontario government's Officer for Victims of Crime. "So why can't we enact the most basic mechanisms to protect our children from sexual exploitation? It's simply inadequate."

[Winnipeg 2000] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: November 20, 2000
Last modified: January 21, 2001
CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710