OTTAWA – Changes the Liberals have made to the way judges are appointed would not necessarily prevent someone who believes in stereotypes about sexual assault cases from presiding over one of those trials, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said Tuesday.
Ambrose went before the House of Commons status of women committee to discuss her private member’s bill that would require anyone who wanted to be considered for an appointment to the bench to undergo comprehensive training in sexual assault law.
The bill, C-337, would also require the Canadian Judicial Council to report on continuing education courses in matters related to sexual assault law and change the Criminal Code to make courts provide written decisions in sexual assault cases.
There were some tense moments, as Liberal MPs pointed out that it was a Conservative justice minister who appointed Robin Camp, who asked a sexual assault complainant in a trial why she couldn’t keep her knees together, to the Federal Court.
Camp, who was a provincial court judge in Alberta when he made the comments, resigned from the Federal Court last month.
Ambrose said her bill is not about assigning blame, but about making sure judges have better training.
“I would watch your comments, because you have no idea what some judge might say or has said or done, that your government might appoint,” Ambrose told Liberal MP Pam Damoff. “These people are supposed to be capable of the job.”
Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld said the federal government had designed a new, merit-based appointments process, with independent judicial advisory committees whose members have undergone training in diversity, unconscious bias and how to assess merit.
Referring to Camp, Vandenbeld asked: “Do you think that that kind of appointment would happen under the current system that our government implemented?”
“There’s a very good chance it would,” Ambrose replied.
“I have seen people appointed who came with incredible CVs and then do things that surprised everyone,” she said.
“So it’s not enough. It’s just not enough,” she said. “You can’t control who applies. … So at the end of the day, regardless of who gets through those committees, we need them to have training.”
The terse exchange aside, the proposed legislation has broad support from all sides of the House of Commons, where MPs voted unanimously last month to fast-track it and send it straight to committee.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time there is room for improvement.
“We need to make sure that we are doing a much better job than we are right now and that is why I look forward to parliamentarians having an opportunity to discuss ways in which we are going to be able to improve it, including with the member’s bill,” Trudeau said March 8.
The 2017 budget proposes $2.7 million over five years, plus $500,000 annually afterwards, for the Canadian Judicial Council to support training on ethics and conduct for federally appointed judges, while also ensuring access to professional development that is gender- and culturally sensitive.
The status of women committee also released a report last month recommending all judges and RCMP officers should have to go through mandatory training on gender-based violence and sexual assault.
Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef has not said whether she will support the bill, but she told the committee last month that the federal government does not have the jurisdiction to mandate training.
In a statement sent by email Tuesday, Monsef said she welcomed Ambrose’s “understanding and appreciation of the severity of the systemic barriers faced by survivors of sexual assault,” but did not further clarify where she stands on the bill, beyond saying she is “pleased” the committee is studying it.
“I look forward to the discussion on this bill as it progresses through Parliament,” Monsef said in the statement.