Friday, June 23, 2006 | Mixed reviews to Tories' sexual consent bill News Staff

Updated: Fri. Jun. 23 2006 6:25 AM ET

In a bid to prevent adults from preying on young teens, the federal government has today moved to raise the age of sexual consent by two years to 16.

If passed, the legislation will mark the first time the age has been changed since it was set at 14 more than a century ago.

Justice Minister Vic Toews, who tabled the bill in the Commons Thursday, said changing the age of consent will protect youths in the 14-to-15-year age group.

"Children are being exploited on our streets by sexual predators and we want to put an end to that," Toews told a news conference in Ottawa.

The bill includes a so-called near-age exemption of five years, which means that a 14-year-old could still have a sexual partner aged up to 19, and a 15-year-old could have a partner up to 20 years old.

The aim is to avoid criminalizing sexual experimentation by teens with their peers, but provide a way to prosecute older adults who target youngsters.

"The law does not make criminals out of young people that's why this bill does include the near-age exemption," Toews told reporters.

"Our target remains squarely on adults who prey on children."

The proposed legislation, which had been promised by the Conservative government since it took power last February, was welcomed by police and anti-child exploitation advocates who say the move will help them deal with pimps and Internet predators.

"There's something wrong with a 14 year old being able to have sex with an adult," Det. Const. Warren Bulmer told CTV's Canada AM Thursday.

"We have 14 year old kids using the Internet and a lot of the time these kids are being propositioned by adults. Those two years will make a difference."

Former Toronto police officer Paul Gillespie said the bill would give police "more tools" in the battle against Internet predators.

"These are children that are being victimized...children need protecting," Gillespie told reporters in Ottawa Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ottawa police chief Vince Bevan described the proposed legislation as "very welcome news."

But critics blasted the bill saying it would only drive young lovers further underground.

Andrea Cohen of the Canadian Federation of Sexual Health, formerly known as Planned Parenthood, said the organization believes the legislation does nothing to keep youth from harm.

"There is no evidence to suggest that raising the age of consent would protect youth, but what it will do is infringe upon the rights of youth in terms of their ability to make decisions on their own sexuality," said Cohen, appearing on CTV Newsnet's Mike Duffy Live.

Liberal justice critic Sue Barnes, who said the age of consent is not an issue that has her constituents riled up, said it's not clear whether her party will support the bill.

The NDP has indicated it will support the bill, however, which could be all the Tories need for the bill to pass the Commons this fall.

Gay rights activists joined the chorus of criticism, saying the proposed bill does not address the age of consent for gay men.

Currently, anal sex is illegal for Canadians under the age of 18.

Hilary Cook, spokeswoman for gay rights group Egale fears it's an attempt to score partisan points.

"That's what it looks like from here. If it was a matter of fairness and protection of youth, why wouldn't they repeal Section 159?" she asked The Canadian Press.

Two gay or bisexual 17-year-olds could still end up behind bars, a flaw not fixed by this bill, Cook asserted.

If the proposed bill passes, it will be the first time the age of consent has been changed since 1890.

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