3 min

Sex laws subcommittee stymied

City launches own project on prostitution

Credit: Robin Perelle Photo

A long-anticipated parliamentary committee report on reforming Canada’s sex and prostitution laws may be one of the casualties if a nonconfidence motion brings down the Martin government before Christmas.

Vancouver MP Libby Davies told Xtra West in a Nov 15 e-mail that the prospect of Parliament ending in the next few weeks has made it difficult for her working group, the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws, to complete its report.

It has been difficult for the committee to reach agreement on recommendations, she says, in part because of delays created by the committee’s Conservative member, Art Hanger.

“I have gotten conflicting info on the status of the report if not tabled,” Davies continues. “As best I can figure, all the testimony can be saved, and if there were agreement in a new Parliament, between all parties, to pick up the report where we left off, that could be done.”

With hopes for a definitive set of reform recommendations from Davies’ subcommittee looking uncertain, attention in Vancouver is shifting to a local initiative, the Living in Community Project.

The project, funded by a $200,000 grant from the Vancouver Agreement, will run for two years — with or without federal reforms legalizing prostitution. Organizers hope it will create a new and productive dialogue amongst street-level sex trade workers, police and advocacy groups, as well as residents and small business people in affected neighbourhoods, and ultimately lead to an action plan on prostitution issues that enjoys consensus support across the city.

According to the Oct 30 press release announcing the project’s launch, “Living in Community (LIC) is a two-year community-based project focusing on the development of a well-informed, coordinated approach to issues associated with sex work. The project is a collaboration of community and government organizations, including peer-based groups formed by current and former sex workers, neighbourhood houses, community policing offices, business improvement associations, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health and the Vancouver Agreement.”

Former councillor Ellen Woodsworth says it’s a great start.

“I’ve worked on prostitution issues since the 1970s, and this is the first time I’ve seen such an initiative. There is no other model like this in North America,” Woodsworth, who was intimately involved in the development of the project, told Xtra West in a Nov 15 interview at city hall.

“We have to build neighbourhood responsibility and local projects,” she says. “The people involved in street-level sex work are our brothers and sisters and we need to address their needs. People have to change the way they think about prostitution, and this could help.

“We have to move away from moral judgments and recognize the complexities involved.”

Lisa Gibson, the coordinator of Living in Community, agrees. She told Xtra West in a phone interview on Nov 16 that the structure of the group guiding the project will help it grapple with the complexities of street prostitution.

Gibson, who has an MA in Gender and Development and who has worked as a youth outreach worker on projects for street involved youth, says that the committee’s structure, which she calls “unique,” will make it possible for Vancouver to create solutions that address the needs of everyone from street prostitutes to local business people to police and advocates.

But one well-known local sex worker and advocate, Jamie Lee Hamilton, is concerned about whether the group behind Living in Community is representative enough.

“There have been problems with this project from day one. No sex trade workers were interviewed or hired for the staff position. This group is full of the business community, but most of the players on the committee are not living in the sex trade workers’ community.”

Sue Davis, a member of the Living in Community committee and self-described current sex trade worker, disagrees. Davis is the chair of PACE (Prostitution Alternatives Counseling Education) and has been involved with the Living in Community Project from the beginning.

“The board is stacked heavily in our favour,” she says. “I’m not the only experiential sex trade worker involved. We’ve contributed lots to the discussion paper. The document, in the end, will speak for itself, and all voices will be heard. We need to act and act now, and this process will help.”