A motion is expected this week in the federal Justice Committee to reconvene its Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws, says Vancouver East MP Libby Davies. But even if the subcommittee is successfully rejuvenated, it is unsure how much weight its report will have, if any, on the Conservative government.
“The justice minister has made this clear: he doesn’t want to deal with the issue,” says Davies, who was vice-chair of the subcommittee. “I can’t operate on the basis that they won’t carry it out,” she adds.
The subcommittee was first struck in November 2004 to review Canada’s sex laws and especially its laws criminalizing prostitution. It last met in November 2005, before a non-confidence motion toppled the existing Liberal government.
Its report, which is about three-quarters complete, says Davies, has been in limbo since then. Because the report is incomplete, Davies and other subcommittee members are not allowed under Parliamentary rules to discuss its contents.
However, witnesses who appeared before the subcommittee, which met mainly in private sessions, spoke about federal laws relating to bawdyhouses, prostitution, solicitation and anal intercourse.
It has been hinted that the subcommittee report, if completed, will call for the repeal of laws against living on the avails of prostitution and solicitation.
Though she won’t name names, Davies says “one member of the committee adopted a go-slow approach” to completing the report and notes “some people would rather sweep it under the carpet.”
Last fall, Davies told Xtra West that Conservative MP Art Hanger was creating delays in drafting the report’s recommendations. Hanger, a Calgary police officer for 22 years, is now chair of the Justice Committee.
However, Davies is hopeful the support of her NDP party, the Liberals and Bloc Québécois will emphasize the importance of reconvening the subcommittee. She, Liberal John Maloney, who chaired the subcommittee in the last Parliament, Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry and Bloc Quebecois MP Réal Ménard sent a letter to the Justice Committee May 10, asking it to “consider reestablishing the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws as a priority, so that we may pick up where we left off and have a report ready this spring.” The letter notes that Canada’s solicitation laws were last examined in 1985.
Asked if it is a concern that Hanger is now Justice Committee chair, Davies says, “Whether it is or not is irrelevant. He’s the chair.”
Though she admits Hanger’s viewpoint generally favours prohibition, and that she’ll “have to take him on” in that respect, she credits him with having knowledge of the issues discussed by the subcommittee.
A more pressing concern, says Davies, is that the subcommittee could be reconstituted with different members, forcing it to start over again because the new members will not have heard the months of testimony the previous subcommittee heard.
“We’re trying to ensure as many members, including Mr Hanger, are on that committee to avoid going back to square one,” Davies says.
“If we do not reconstitute the Subcommittee this session with a majority of the previous members, large amounts of in-camera evidence will be lost. Moreover, all of the cost and time entailed in the committee work and travel will have been wasted,” notes the letter sent by Davies, Maloney, Fry and Menard to the Justice Committee.
Even if the subcommittee is reconvened with the same members and completes its report, there is no guarantee the Conservative government will act on it. Given this risk, is it still worth reconvening?
Yes, says Peter Bochove, a Toronto bathhouse owner and founding member of the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century.
“There’s a danger in idiotic laws that fail to protect people,” Bochove says. Though he is doubtful the subcommittee will be reconvened, he still says it is “absolutely essential.”
The peril sex trade workers face daily means the issue cannot be ignored, he and Davies agree.
However, Bochove adds, “We have to have a government in place willing to enforce the recommendations.”
In the meantime, Bochove predicts it will be left to the Supreme Court to reinterpret Canada’s existing solicitation laws, speculating harm or risk of harm could be applied to prostitution in a similar way to its application to bawdyhouse laws.
Last December, the Supreme Court of Canada effectively legalized bathhouses–up until then targeted as bawdyhouses–by changing the legal definition of “acts of indecency.” The Dec 21 ruling acquitted the owners of two Montreal swingers clubs, and changed the test for assessing indecency from a community standards-based test to a harm-based one.
As the debate over decriminalizing sex work continues and the fate of the subcommittee sits in limbo, Justice Minister Vic Toews is set to introduce legislation raising the age of consent from 14 to 16, making it a crime for young people to have sex before they turn 16.
The proposed law would, however, allow teens to have sex with other teens no more than five years apart, plus allow married 14- and 15-year-olds to have sex with their partners, regardless of any age gap.
Toews told reporters in February that changing the sexual age of consent would be a top priority for him and his government.
The Criminal Code currently says young people can choose to have sex once they turn 14, though it limits who they can have sex with. Teens between 14-17 cannot have sex with people over 18 if the older person is in a position of trust or authority, or if the two are deemed to be in an “exploitative” relationship. The courts have yet to define “exploitative” in this context.