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Harper and His Many Omnibus Bills

Tracking the various Omnibus Bills implemented by the Harper Government

Omnibus bills: one of Harper’s favourite tools; used akin to the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter, as most of the public has no idea what changes are being made to many laws which change our daily lives.

Photo credit: yorktonthisweek.com
Photo credit: yorktonthisweek.com

Generally, omnibus bills cover a diverse range of topics, and it is a single document accepted in a single vote by the legislature. However, because of the diverse range of topics and the large size, typically omnibus bills limit openings for debate and scrutiny. For these reasons, omnibus bills create possibilities for laws to be created through an undemocratic method, and Parliament generally does not have the ability to have meaningful debates about the issues.

Historically, although this method has been criticized as undemocratic, omnibus bills have been a useful tool to speed up the legislative process to implement social change. For example, in 1967 Pierre Trudeau introduced the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which decriminalized homosexuality, anal sex between adults, abortion, and contraception.

However, the current political trend has been developed by the Harper government to utilize omnibus bills as a tool to bypass the democratic process to implement bills, which are counteractive to social change. Marginalized communities have been targeted to a large extent by omnibus bills implemented by the Harper government. Exploring the operation of Bill S-7, Bill C-43, and Bill C-24 demonstrates the negative effect omnibus bills have had on marginalized communities in Canada.

Bill S-7 is also known as the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,” which is generally intended to bar polygamous and forced marriages. The Bill amends immigration and criminal laws with the purpose of keeping polygamists out of Canada, and preventing women and girls from being married against their will. This is the perspective and justification being reproduced by the Conservative government to the public.

This Bill has had a great effect on women and racialized communities, and was heavily criticized by social justice organizations such as the Schlifer Clinic and the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) as “another example of the government failing to listen to survivors, and targeting racialized communities for exclusion and deportation from Canada.” The Bill was also criticized as reproducing institutional barriers to marginalized communities reporting violence and having access to support. SALCO condemned the Bill as victims would be less likely to report forced marriages because of their internal struggle with placing their family at risk. Secondly, “due to increased stigma, perpetrators of forced marriage will be more skilled at hiding their attempts at forcing marriages, and the unfortunate result of creating these barriers is that victims will go deeper underground, instead of seeking support.”

The criticisms formed by advocacy organizations such as the Schlifer Clinic and SALCO demonstrate the lack of cohesion and cooperation between the government and advocacy organizations in forming this Bill. As a result, the Bill was produced with very little understanding of what the people who are affected by the Bill truly need. Instead the Bill reproduces the stigma of gender violence being connected to the “other.” The Schlifer Clinic stated, “the Act betrays a flawed ideology that locates violence against women as a “cultural” issue which only occurs in some communities, and ignores statistics and women’s lived reality that shocking levels of violence against women occurs every day in Canada across cultures.”

Moving on to Bill C-43, which deals with the prevention of access to social assistance for refugees, sections 172 and 173 allow provinces to deny social assistance to refugee claimants, and others who lack permanent residency status. Certain groups would not need to meet the residency requirement to be eligible for social assistance. These include Canadian citizens, permanent residents, victims of human trafficking with a temporary resident permit, and refugees who have been recognized as such by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). It is the categories of people who are not listed that would be the most adversely affected; namely, refugee claimants who have filed their claim at a port of entry or inland at a Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) office.

Many advocates have found that Bill C-43 demonstrates the “cruel and unusual treatment of refugees and migrants in Canada to have hit a new high water mark under this Conservative government.” The changes have been drastic, where the number of family-class immigrants dropped by ten thousand in the first four years the Conservative Party of Canada formed government, and furthermore the number of refugees has dropped by 25 per cent. The Report released by Citizens for Public Justice also demonstrated many refugees under this new legislation will no longer be able to support themselves, and the capacity of organizations who provide services to them would also be greatly impeded as their funding is cut back. Additionally, the Report discredits the federal government’s claim that the policy would save money for taxpayers, and details the domestic and international legislation Bill C-43 would likely violate.

Finally, Bill C-24 is known as the “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,” where it amends the Citizenship Act to update eligibility requirements for Canadian citizenship, strengthen security and fraud provisions, and amend provisions governing the processing of applications and the review of decisions. Bill C-24 is particularly dangerous because of the wide range of power and discretion it wields to the government. The power the government holds to revoke citizenship for those guilty of a crime is problematic; however, it becomes very alarming for those who are not. Furthermore, “legal experts warn that the list of offences that could lead to the removal of citizenship might be expanded in the future.”[1] Therefore, this Bill opens the door to further social injustices for marginalized communities.

Essentially, Bill C-24 punishes criminal activity with exile, which is a practice abandoned hundreds of years ago, and most importantly, does not bode well with a democracy. Furthermore, the absence of a judge in the new citizenship stripping process makes the process unfair, and likely unconstitutional. Bill C-24 further impresses the idea of citizenship as a privilege, not a right, where there are redefined narratives of citizenship, and what it means to be Canadian. This is important to note because while they are ‘strengthening’ the citizenship process, the image of the ideal Canadian is being formed to be those without dual nationality; not to mention the fact that the Bill has been widely criticized for its creation of a two-tier citizenship system.

The image of Canada as a multicultural place accepting of those deemed as “others,” is quickly disappearing with Harper’s omnibus bills continuing to mark marginalized communities. Consequently, the Harper Government is using omnibus bills as a tool to change the Canadian landscape and, even more alarming, most of the public is not aware of the drastic changes being made which significantly alter what it currently means to be Canadian.

[1] “It’s official – second class citizenship goes into effect” British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (3 June 2015) online: <https://bccla.org/2015/06/its-official-second-class-citizenship-goes-into-effect/>.