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Canada adds indecency, abortion offences to list of ‘unjust’ historic convictions

People who have been convicted of a number of indecency and anti-abortion offences that are no longer on the books can now have those convictions expunged.

People who have been convicted of a number of indecency and anti-abortion offences that are no longer on the books can now have those convictions expunged.

The list of “historically unjust offences” is being expanded to include a raft of charges that date back as far as 1892 and were largely directed at the LGBTQ community and women.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said at a Tuesday news conference that the offences led to the stigmatization and marginalization of people and deprived them of a sense of belonging because of their sexual orientation or their gender.

“That is wrong,” he said.

The government says police historically used certain indecency aspects of bawdy-house laws to target and raid bathhouses, LGBTQ nightclubs and swingers clubs.

“As a result of the raids, individuals who owned, were employed by or were patrons of these venues were charged under the bawdy-house provisions of the Criminal Code,” said a government background document published in the Canada Gazette.

Bawdy-house offences, which were repealed in 2019, prohibited being in or keeping a place “kept or occupied for the purpose of prostitution or for the practice of acts of indecency,” according to the document.

“The idea of transactions based on money have, for far too long, stigmatized sex workers,” Mendicino said. “And so as we navigate that, I think it is important to put that lens on the work of getting access to expungements as well.”

Some of the now-repealed laws targeted women for “procuring their own miscarriage” and seeking an abortion. Doctors or others who helped women access an abortion could have been convicted of “procuring another person’s miscarriage” or “supplying a noxious thing to procure a miscarriage.”

People can apply to the Parole Board to have their criminal records cleared of these offences, and family members or trustees can apply on behalf of people who have died.

“For those who have been affected by this, they deserve this. This is the least that they deserve,” said Seamus O’Regan, the minister of labour and a member of the LGBTQ community. “I think we’ve come incredibly far in this country, but we have to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.”

The government said it has created criteria to exclude anyone who performed dangerous and harmful abortion procedures, or performed abortions without the patient’s consent.

The RCMP’s national criminal records repository lists about 18,597 records related to bawdy-houses and indecent acts as well as 67 abortion-related convictions.

“Those who were convicted as a result of these charges will benefit from the symbolic recognition and recourse and may experience a material benefit in the form of a permanently destroyed record of conviction,” said the background document published in the Canada Gazette.

But given the historical nature of the convictions, it is unclear how many people will apply to have their record cleared. The existing expungement regime currently has “low uptake,” according to the document.

The Parole Board of Canada estimates it will handle about 2,500 requests, with the government saying that a majority of those eligible are older Canadians.

“We’re in the process of undertaking that analysis so that we can roll this out as quickly as possible,” said Mendicino.

The government is looking at ways to reduce barriers to more easily allow people to expunge their records. No fee is involved, and Mendicino said the public service will help people navigate the system.