In Canada, the legal age of consent for marriage is 18, however, many provinces have exceptions for those aged 16 and 17 if they have permission from parents and legal guardians. Marriage under 16 is illegal across the country, even if all parties consent. Despite the law, a recent study conducted out of Mcgill University in Montreal and published in the academic journal Population and Development Review shows that child marriage remains a concern within our borders. It continues to affect (mostly) young girls living in rural communities across the country.

Marriages on the Decline, but Common-Law Relationships are Increasing

While marriage is legal in Canada for those over age 15 (with parental consent), the study defines child marriage as “formal or informal marriage before the age of 18”. The researchers conducted an analysis of marriage certificates issued in Canada between 2000 and 2018 and found that 3,600 certificates were issued to Canadian children under the age of 18.

Because underage marriage tends to affect mostly young girls who commit to much older men, the practice of marrying under 18 is recognized around the world as an indicator of gender inequality. This was confirmed by the research, which found that 85% of the certificates issued to minors were issued to young girls.

The study also looked at informal marriages, or common-law unions, involving minors in Canada. The researchers found that common-law marriages for minors had been on the rise, accounting for 98% of all unions by 2016, likely owing to the increasing disapproval of the concept among the general population. This lack of a formal paper trail also makes it more difficult to track these unions, so the actual number is more difficult to pinpoint. However, the study accounted for nearly 2,300 children between the ages of 15 and 17 who were in an informal marriage.

While common-law unions make the practice more difficult to identify, they also provide fewer legal protections for the children involved. Common-law spouses can still be entitled to support if the relationship ends, however, they have much less protection when it comes to property rights. The lack of a legal marriage certificate also puts children younger than 16 at an increased risk of finding themselves in this type of arrangement.

Canada’s Commitment to the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Canada is one of over 70 countries that has joined global efforts, through the United Nations, to put a stop to child marriage abroad by 2030. As part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the organization has created a 2030 Agenda with 17 specific goals, addressing multiple issues affecting global sustainability.

Girls Not Brides, the global partnership that makes up part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, aims to eliminate child marriage by 2030. It cites some of the impacts of child marriage as the following:

Isolated and with limited freedom, married girls often feel disempowered. They are deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety.

Child brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. They face more risks of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.

While Canada is a proud signatory of the 2030 Agenda, our own laws as they currently stand appear to be in conflict with the goals touted by the UN. The authors of the study cited above highlight this in the press release issued in conjunction with the publication of the study:

The persistence of this practice within Canada highlights some of the inherent challenges to fully eradicating child marriage and reveals an important inconsistency between Canada’s domestic laws and its global policies.

Age of Consent Laws in Canada

In Canada, the age at which a person can legally consent to sexual conduct is 16 years. However, there are other factors that can change this fact, including the potential for sexual exploitation. The law has made it clear that someone aged 16 or 17 cannot consent to sexual activity in the following circumstances:

  • their sexual partner is in a position of trust or authority towards them, for example, their teacher or coach
  • the young person is dependent on their sexual partner, for example for care or support
  • the relationship between the young person and their sexual partner is exploitative

The following factors may be taken into account when determining whether a relationship is exploitative of the young person:

  • the young person’s age
  • the age difference between the young person and their partner
  • how the relationship developed (for example, quickly, secretly, or over the internet)
  • whether the partner may have controlled or influenced the young person

These factors seem to indicate that a person under 18 in a marriage or a marriage-like union with a person significantly older than them, particularly if they depend on that person for support, may be at risk of sexual exploitation.

At the very least, this study makes it clear that Canada has work to do within our own borders in order to align with the global agenda our country has committed itself to.

The family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman are exceptionally experienced with respect to matters pertaining to the protection of children and to parenting disputes following the breakdown of a relationship. We work with families to find effective solutions that always place the best interests of the child first. Contact our office today by calling us at 403-910-3000 or reach out online.

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