3 min

Sex-work bill in marathon committee meetings

Conservatives race to adopt new legislation before December deadline

Justice Minister Peter MacKay rejected just about every criticism levelled at the government’s proposed sex-work bill on July 7, the first day of committee meetings. Credit: Wikimedia commons

“The Robert Pickton model.”

That’s what sex workers at Maggie’s Toronto are calling the Conservative government’s new prostitution bill, according to the advocacy organization’s executive director, Jean McDonald.

McDonald presented her concerns to members of Parliament July 7 at committee hearings for Bill C-36, the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.” But the reaction from sex workers is perfectly clear: this bill isn’t going to protect anyone.

“There is a common misconception that sex workers can’t speak for themselves and need someone else to speak for them,” says Emily Symons, of Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist. Symons says the sex workers she works with are very concerned about the bill.

Monica Forrester is one of these sex workers. She couldn’t testify before the committee. She was in Toronto, as one of her friends had been arrested under the old prostitution laws that the Supreme Court of Canada declared unconstitutional in 2013.

“Police will push outdoor workers away from residential areas because of the restriction on being near anyone under 18. This will lead to an increase in residential surveillance and harassment,” said Chanelle Gallant, a spokesperson for Maggie’s who read Forrester’s submission in her stead. “Marginalized groups like people of colour, trans women, aboriginal women and two-spirit women are more likely to be street-based, and they will face extreme criminalization under this bill.”

The testimony came on the first day of a marathon session of rare parliamentary summer hearings, as the Conservatives race to adopt the prostitution legislation ahead of the December 20 deadline, when the old laws will evaporate. The witness list is roughly divided, split between activists, academics and lawyers, some of whom endorse the Conservatives’ embrace of the Nordic model and others who fear it could put sex workers in danger.

But if the first day of hearings was any indication, there’s little room for movement on the government’s side.

“For us, to do nothing was never an option,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay told the committee when he testified July 7. He rejected just about every criticism levelled at the bill by sex-work organizations.

Bill C-36’s main objective is to criminalize the purchasing of sex, following in the footsteps of the model adopted by Sweden, Iceland and Denmark. But the Harper government’s legislation — which MacKay fondly refers to as “uniquely Canadian” — goes much further. It makes it illegal to communicate about a sexual service anywhere “that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.”

As many legal minds noted, that’s just about anywhere. MacKay himself admitted that the definition could criminalize a sex worker operating in front of a hotel at certain times of the day. To that end, even those witnesses who support adopting the Nordic model had trouble with criminalizing sex workers.

“I raised concerns with sections of C-36 which could still result in victims of sexual exploitation facing criminal sanctions,” said Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan. “We don’t think that’s necessary.” Swan is a New Democrat and a vocal supporter of the Nordic model.

The bill also criminalizes advertising for sexual services. That’s a move that critics say could hurt sex workers by interfering with their ability to screen clients and could effectively compromise Canadians’ freedom of expression.

When asked, MacKay said police would be looking to investigate any website that carries advertisements for sexual services. “Anything that enables or furthers what we think is an inherently dangerous practice of prostitution will be subject to prosecution,” MacKay told reporters on the first day of committee hearings. He said sex workers will be immune from prosecution, yet the bill could target many others.

But the bill has its proponents, including many former sex workers.

“Prostitution is not a profession; it’s an oppression,” says Timea Nagy, founder of Walk with Me Victim Services. She told the committee that she was effectively sold into the sex industry, where she faced sexual abuse and assault.

The back-and-forth between current sex workers and their advocates, and former sex workers and abolitionist organizations, comes down to a difference in models: the difference between the Nordic model and the approach in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized and activists say conditions are safer for those in the industry.

But philosophy may end up being secondary. Representatives from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association told the committee that C-36 would not stand up to a legal challenge. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, criminalizing the sex trade brings harm for sex workers,” criminal lawyer Leo Russomanno told MPs. The Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that laws that put sex workers in danger are unconstitutional, he pointed out. He doesn’t think C-36 would survive a court battle.

The committee meets three times a day until the evening of July 10. When Parliament resumes in mid-September, the committee is expected to refer the bill back to the House of Commons. The bill will likely become law by November.