The Globe & Mail
Friday, March 16, 2001

Child pornography, etc.

Omnibus bills are the steamer trunks of legislation. You jump on them until you've squeezed everything in, and it doesn't matter how little the contents have in common.

From the federal government's point of view, the bills are a godsend. When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called a snap election last fall only 3 years into his mandate, he left interrupted legislation strewn all over the Commons floor. The omnibus Criminal Law Amendment Act, introduced Wednesday by Justice Minister Anne McLellan, lets the government consolidate all the unfinished business, toss in a few more important changes, and thank the stars that the mess is out of the pantry.

For MPs in general and opposition MPs in particular, omnibus bills are an inconvenience, and often worse. They can mean a tiresome sorting of the welcome, the unwelcome and the innocuous, and a complex calculation of whether to support a package that, like Punch magazine's famous curate's egg, is good only in parts.

This week's bill attracted headlines by proposing specific penalties for child pornography on the Internet. Not much to argue with there. The legislation would create the crime of "access", defined as "knowingly" causing child porn "to be viewed by, or transmitted to, himself or herself" -- an electronic extension of the law against distribution, purchase, and possession. Protections would remain in place; a judge would determine whether under the Criminal Code, as amended recently by the Supreme Court of Canada, a seized transmission fit the description of child pornography.

One provision may send a salutary chill through chat rooms on the faceless Web. The bill would make it a crime for anyone to use a computer to communicate with "a person who is, or who the accused believes is, under the age of 18 years" for the purpose of "facilitating the commission" of illegal acts with a minor. (Other sections focus on under-16s and under-14s.)

The admirable purpose is to prosecute adults who attempt, for instance, to lure children into sexual activity or solicit paid sex with someone under 18. However, it may catch a few in the net who believe, because they have been told, that the typist at the other end is over 18. The law says it is not a defence for an accused to argue that the minor told him she was over 18 (or 16, or 14) "unless the accused took reasonable steps to ascertain the age of the person". Chatter, beware.

Beyond that, the bill is alive with reforms. It would toughen sentences for home invasions and increase the penalties for stalking. It would create an offence many of us imagined already existed: disarming or attempting to disarm an officer. It would impose stiffer penalties for cruelty to animals. It would authorize the cabinet to appoint a commissioner of firearms and provide for the appointment of a registrar of firearms. (The Canadian Alliance may have a word to say about that.)

Not enough? It would reshape the way courts hear cases, by encouraging electronic appearances by people from remote areas. It would adjust the process by which people protest alleged miscarriages of justice to the Justice Minister. It would reach as far as the International Space Station, fixing the wording that covers foreign astronauts who damage a "flight element" provided by Canada.

It seems a reasonable package. But that's the trouble with omnibus bills; you can never be sure until you've fought your way to the bottom of the trunk.

Copyright © 2001 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.