Nova Scotia advocates closer to making torture bill reality

After 23 years of pushing the cause, two Nova Scotia women are one step closer to having their work turned into law.

Jeanne Sarson, Linda MacDonald have been pushing for domestic torture to become stand-alone bill for 23 years

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald appeared before a standing committee on human rights and justice in Ottawa on Thursday. They are helping London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos push for a private member's bill to recognize torture as a crime. (Linda MacDonald)

Two Truro, N.S., activists are "cautiously optimistic" as they wait for federal politicians to decide whether they will recognize non-state torture in the Criminal Code.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald have legitimate weight to their pitch, now that London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos has tabled a private member's bill in the House of Commons. 

"When you're an activist, you have to go in with hope," said Sarson. "But to go in and have it real and almost in the palm of your hand, it's a different kind of hope."

Bill C-242 passed second reading last spring. On Sept. 22, Fragiskatos made arguments to the standing committee on justice and human rights. 

"We need to shift the perspective sometimes and listen to those who have endured suffering," said Fragiskatos. "Perhaps on that basis, law can change."

The pitch

The MP is asking for a section to be added to the Criminal Code that distinguishes domestic torture from state torture. Under existing law, military and police officials can be charged with torture. However, similar crimes in the home are often recognized as aggravated assault.

Fragiskatos says that's not fair to victims.

"The term aggravated assault can also be used to describe a fist fight. That is not appropriate," he said. "We need to call crimes what they are. We need to acknowledge that experience, and when we do healing can begin."

Sarson and MacDonald also made presentations to the committee. They believe strongly that re-defining extreme abuse as torture helps victims and survivors heal.

"If we name a crime, then we make it visible in our country. When we start gathering data on the crime and we start knowing how prevalent it is in our country, we have statistics and then we start the interventions with police and in the court system," MacDonald said.

Mandate letter

While the pair was pleased with the questions asked by committee members, they've been told the bill likely won't be endorsed by cabinet. They wonder why government is hesitating, since the prime minister suggested making changes to the Criminal Code in his mandate letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Sarson hopes opposing politicians will change their stance this fall.

"If they shift their position, it might shift how the voting goes," she said.

Work in progress

Fragiskatos originally asked for the proposed torture bill to carry a life sentence. He has since lowered the maximum penalty suggestion to 14 years to match the state punishment.

"I certainly wouldn't want to block the bill based on the 14 years, so it's a compromise I'm comfortable with," said MacDonald.

After 23 years of fighting for this cause, MacDonald and Sarson are pleased they finally have the attention of decision-makers in Ottawa. There will be a few more closed meetings before a final vote is held later this year.

"If we come for third reading, can I open my eyes and watch how everybody is going to vote or will it be so hard that I won't be able to move?" Sarson said.

MacDonald adds they won't be waiting around for an answer.

"We are going to continue to lobby as much as we can to keep pushing the bill until it either passes or dies on the floor," she said.