If it can survive efforts to shelve it, a report winding its way through a subcommittee of federal politicians could call for major changes to the way prostitution is dealt with in Canada — and repeal the laws used to target gay bathhouses.
So says Libby Davies, the Vancouver East NDP politician whose 2003 motion before Parliament resulted in a cross-country consultation with prostitutes and others concerned about existing laws.
At the time Davies was responding to the discovery of DNA from missing prostitutes on a pig farm owned by Robert Pickton. Most of the 60-plus women went missing from Davies’ riding.
The public consultation heard from more than 100 delegates in public and another 150 or so, including many current and past prostitutes, behind closed doors. Several speakers called for the elimination of sections of the Criminal Code used by police to raid gay bathhouses.
Government researchers spent the summer months preparing the first draft report of the subcommittee. On the first Monday of the fall sitting — Sep 26 — the politicians met to begin revising the draft.
That meeting was a mistake, says Davies. The subcommittee on solicitation laws is not allowed to meet until committee chairs are appointed — and that has not happened.
Still, says Davies, the draft report “takes the right direction and is very substantive. I’m overall very pleased.”
By Parliamentary rules she’s not allowed to talk publicly about what’s in the first try at a report. But the National Post’s John Ivison hinted Oct 7 that the draft proposes repealing laws “relating to bawdy houses, living on the avails of prostitution and solicitation.”
Police charge gay bathhouses and their customers under Sections 210 to 211 of the Criminal Code. Davies says she favours repealing those sections of the Criminal Code.
“There is no legitimate reason for the way this law has been used against gay bathhouses,” she told Xtra West earlier this year. “This is just based on ridiculous moral rhetoric.”
Davies says a majority of committee members want to continue penalizing aspects of prostitution that are exploitative — such as child prostitution, violence and pimping — while respecting consensual activity between adults.
“We heard such powerful testimony. I can’t imagine the committee didn’t hear the need for substantive changes and these are reflected in the report,” she says.
Most debate is over two sections of the Criminal Code: Section 212, prohibiting procuring and “living off the avails” of prostitution, and Section 213, outlawing communicating for the purposes of prostitution. Prostitution itself is legal in Canada.
Since the Mulroney government brought in Section 213 in 1985, more sex workers have been killed on the job than have police officers.
The committee will now go through the first draft paragraph-by-paragraph trying to find agreement, says Davies.
She expects that the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Liberal members of the committee will find a progressive consensus. But Conservative Art Hangar, a former Calgary cop, will write a minority report, she predicts. Hangar favours tougher law enforcement rather than the harm-reduction approach that prostitutes told the committee they wanted.
Davies says the committee is racing against time to ensure the report sees daylight. If an election is called before the report is submitted to Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, the work is lost. Media reports suggest Prime Minister Paul Martin is putting pressure on Liberal members of the committee to slow the process or bury the report.
Cotler has publicly said he’s willing to consider the report’s recommendations. And so Davies’ objective is to get it through subcommittee and into his hands.
“If we can get that far, we’ve made progress. If the final report is well thought out, I have some confidence he’ll consider it.”
Of course, the final report would be very controversial, Davies says. But that’s a good thing: Canadians need to debate the impact that restrictive laws have on people’s lives.
“This is a matter of real health emergency for sex workers who are facing real danger because of the law. If it was any other group of people, it would have been addressed by now.”