Rona Ambrose's sex assault bill is dead — and so is the UNDRIP bill

Former Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose’s bill to give mandatory sexual assault training to federally appointed judges is all but dead thanks to some procedural manoeuvring in the Senate.

Bill to ban advertising of 'unhealthy' food to young people is also headed for defeat

Former federal Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose speaks to reporters in Red Deer, Alta. Ambrose's bill to give mandatory sexual assault training to federally appointed judges is dead, thanks to some procedural manoeuvring in the Senate. (Dean Bennett/Canadian Press)

Former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose's bill to give mandatory sexual assault training to federally appointed judges is dead, thanks to some procedural manoeuvring in the Senate.

Two other consequential pieces of legislation — one that would implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and another to ban "unhealthy" food and beverage marketing directed at children — also are headed for almost certain defeat.

The sexual assault training bill, which passed unanimously in the House of Commons more than two years ago, will not be passed despite a robust lobbying campaign by Ambrose and her supporters — a campaign largely designed to put pressure on her former Conservative caucus colleagues in the Red Chamber.

The bill, which would mandate sexual assault sensitivity training for lawyers seeking to be judges on federal courts, was to be Ambrose's last significant piece of work in the Commons after years as a parliamentarian and cabinet minister.

A last-ditch effort by Quebec Independent Sen. Pierre Dalphond to hold early Thursday morning debates on the bill was blocked by Conservative senators. But even if the Senate were to pass the legislation, the bill has been amended already at committee. That means the House of Commons would have to be recalled to accept changes made by the upper house — a very unlikely scenario.

The House of Commons rose Thursday for what is likely to be the last time before October's federal election. The Senate is expected to do the same today, but only once virtually all of the government's agenda has been passed. All other bills, including Ambrose's legislation, are expected to die on the order paper because an election wipes the parliamentary slate clean.

While some Independent and Liberal senators initially opposed the Ambrose bill as a symbolic gesture (90 per cent of sexual assault cases are heard by provincial judges) that would interfere with the constitutional principle of judicial independence, some Senate amendments at the legal affairs committee satisfied those concerns.

Ambrose maintains the training would prevent another scandal like the one involving Robin Camp, a former Federal Court judge who once asked a sexual assault complainant why she didn't keep her knees together. (Camp stepped down from Federal Court in March 2018 after the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) recommended that he be removed from the bench.)

Ambrose has described the actions of senators on the bill — including her former colleagues — as "shameful."

"Canadians rightfully expect more from Parliament. Victims of sexual assault deserve representatives who will stand up for them, especially when they don't have a voice in the fight. It's shameful that powerful senators lack the will to stand up for victims of sexual crimes," Ambrose said.

"We're heading into an election this fall where women's issues will be front and centre. 90 per cent of sexual crimes are against women. All senators and political parties will (bear) the burden of letting C-337 die. They all share the responsibility to do the right thing."

Federal Liberals have said they will re-introduce Ambrose's bill if their government is re-elected in the fall.

Other significant pieces of legislation — 29 private member's bills in total — are also headed for the parliamentary dumpster.

One of them is C-262, a bill from NDP MP Romeo Saganash that would have implemented the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. That bill was backed by the full force of the Liberal government — but only after then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould faced opposition in Indigenous circles for initially saying implementing UNDRIP wholesale in Canadian law would be "unworkable."

Speaking in the chamber Wednesday, Peter Harder, the government's leader or "representative" in the chamber, said that a future Liberal government would re-introduce the legislation as a government bill to better ensure its passage through Parliament.

Harder, who identifies as a non-affiliated senator but was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to carry out the government's work in the Senate, said the Liberal Party would make implementing UNDRIP a campaign promise in the fall election.

Conservative senators have steadfastly opposed the legislation, fearing some of UNDRIP's provisions would give Indigenous communities an absolute veto over natural resources development. Legal scholars disagree on how exactly the "free, prior and informed consent" provision of UNDRIP should be interpreted.

Private member's bills have taken a back seat to government bills in recent weeks as the parliamentary session draws to a close. And because of political procedural moves by the Conservative whip, Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, private member's bills haven't made it onto the Senate agenda.

Hour-long bells for Senate votes and the practice of "seeing the clock" every night at 6 p.m. — an odd Senate ritual that suspends chamber proceedings for a two-hour break— have forced senators to debate long into the night without ever moving beyond the mountain of government bills.

Another bill — this one from former Conservative Sen. Nancy Greene Raine — is also expected to die on the order paper.

Her legislation would curb advertising of certain foods to young people in the hope that reduced exposure to marketing might change buying behaviours and curb obesity rates.

While it's supported by public health campaigners, farmers fear the bill could ban them from advertising products like milk and bread.

Independent Saskatchewan Sen. Pamela Wallin has sought to prevent that bill's final passage (which has been passed in some form by both the Senate and the Commons) after hearing concerns from people in her province. Organizations like the Heart and Stroke Foundation have launched attack ads against Wallin for stalling the bill's passage.

Walllin branded it the "bread-is-bad bill," because Health Canada bureaucrats have said that any product with more 5 per cent salt, fat or sugar content would be deemed "unhealthy" and barred from marketing aimed at people aged 17 or younger. Most bread products, they said, would overtop that limit.

The government supports the bill in principle. The mandate letter for former health minister Jane Philpott included similar promises to protect kids from certain food and beverage advertising.

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John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.