Comment: Barbarism exists within our borders, too

Oh, Canada. Last week the federal government announced first reading of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, a law that that will deem inadmissible to Canada people in valid polygamous marriages.

Having done some writing and thinking about polygamy in the context of how law regulates our understanding of the family, I wanted to write persuasively on what makes this law so stunningly awful. But the title of this act does that work for me. Instead, with fingers hovering at the keyboard, I find myself unable to avoid the connections between this act and a series of other regressive, compassion-lacking initiatives omnipresent at this moment.

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This draft law, which obviously aims to protect Canadians from barbarism, points with disgust at cultural practices beyond our borders, even as this same government refuses to support a national inquiry into hundreds of our own missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

This proposed bill with its stiffened Criminal Code provisions is part and parcel of an agenda that means that it is now possible in Canada to go to jail for 75 years without the possibility of parole. It patronizingly strives to protect women in other places from their own cultures, while on our own streets, newly rewritten anti-prostitution laws will make life more difficult and dangerous for women, men and trans folk working in the sex trade.

This omnibus legislation is disdainful of non-monogamy and protective of children. This only serves to underline the hypocrisy of allowing wealthy couples to income-split in the name of child care while the government knows full well that support for single parents would go much further in addressing child poverty in Canada.

This soon-to-be law reinforces a moral code as universally accepted, a moral code that is reflected elsewhere in the approval of a law school with discriminatory admission policies, by labelling as “terrorism” the crimes of a young man with a history of mental-health issues and homelessness, and by the national broadcaster that might have turned a blind eye to the abusive behaviour of one of its brightest stars.

It is too easy to mock an act with a title better suited for the satirical website The Onion than for Parliament. Are there elements of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act that will resonate with the Canadian public? Yes. But for the most part, those elements are already part of Canadian law.

So, I am back where I started — wondering what leaves this government so blindingly insecure that it needs to preserve and enhance the privilege of the already privileged, through immigration, through taxation, through criminalization, through patriarchy? Maybe like the title of this act, this is just one of those questions that answers itself. Oh, Canada. Time to act like a country of care and compassion, and not like a bully that needs harsh laws to protect the already powerful from the “other.”


Gillian Calder is an associate professor of law at the University of Victoria.

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