6 min

Sex-work bill witness list stacked with anti-sex-work activists

Yet committee narrows Bill C-36’s prohibition on public communication

Justice Minister Peter MacKay jumped on the anti-human-trafficking bandwagon to justify passage of the government’s prostitution bill, C-36, during committee hearings July 7 to 11. Credit: Wikimedia commons

“You were describing a scenario where you were being raped, I believe, by three Russians . . .”

Robert Goguen is stumbling into his ham-fisted question, and a room full of heads are cocked.

“Let’s suppose the police authorities would have broken in and rescued you . . .”

You’ve probably seen the transcript by now, but the words don’t quite capture the way in which his breathtakingly stupid question punctuated the otherwise stifling quiet in the room.

“Would your freedom of expression have been in any way breached?” Goguen concluded.

Lots of hay has been made about the Conservative MP’s question, but little attention was paid to the underlining theme of the committee hearings that it betrayed.

The MPs were back in Ottawa for rare summer hearings as Parliament rushes to pass Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s prostitution bill. The hearings proved thorny, with a bevy of former and current sex workers decrying the bill as a jeopardy to their safety but without any overt opposition from the New Democrats or Liberals.

But what became clear over the 20 hours of hearings held July 7 to 11 is that the Conservative position remains firm: sex workers are victims, prostitution is exploitation, and freedom doesn’t come into it.

Two solitudes

Goguen’s question didn’t come out of the blue. He was teeing up his government’s response to an issue raised by lawyer Leo Russomanno, from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.

“The evidence is very clear: sex workers communicate in order to protect themselves,” Russomanno told MPs. “This, in my view, goes to the core values that underlie the freedom of expression that we all are supposed to be guaranteed.”

But Goguen didn’t buy that.

“What I’m saying is that you weren’t freely expressing yourself by being raped by three men,” Goguen continued in his questioning. “Now this section 7 [of the Charter], there’s the life, liberty and security of the person. When you’re being coerced to do sexual acts, you’re not doing it freely; that definitely goes against your right to life, liberty and freedom of the person. You’re not participating in this freely, right?”

Some former sex workers echoed the government position, saying they never had a choice not to enter the trade. Timea Nagy, founder of Walk with Me Canada Victim Services, who was the recipient of Goguen’s bumbling interrogation, was lured into Canada on false pretenses and forced to work in a massage parlour, where it was expected that she would have sex with clients. She escaped, only to return to the industry after finding herself in dire financial straits.

“Prostitution always involves a power imbalance between a customer who pays to have their pleasure met and a person who is hired to act like a sex puppet,” Nagy told the committee. “Prostitution is rarely, if ever, about two consenting adults.”

Those duelling narratives muddled the committee’s work and caused headaches for the MPs studying the bill. “I grew up with two solitudes,” NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin said. “I used to think it was English and French. Now I’m convinced it is prostitution.” Which take on the sex trade is more accurate, MPs wondered: the one where women in confinement and desperation are forced to ply their trade under duress, or a less monolithic reality where some women consent and others end up there because of their circumstances.

“These can both be true,” said Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. “This committee should mostly be worried about the impact of the law on the second group.”

Human trafficking

The witness list, however, was largely stacked with anti-sex-work activists. Of the 60 hours of testimony, MPs heard mostly about positive outcomes in Sweden after the government implemented a ban on purchasing sex in 1999, as well as from women who worked in the sex trade in Canada and made it out, and who now work to warn others from the same fate.

They also heard from groups that “rescue” sex workers and victims of human trafficking victims, more than a dozen of which endorsed the bill as effectively combating human trafficking.

Several MPs took up the need to curb human trafficking as justification for passing the bill.

“The amendments contained in Bill C-36 are meant to marry new sections of the Criminal Code with existing sections that deal with human trafficking,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay said.

Even Rick Hanson, chief of the Calgary Police Service, struck an alarmist note. “We can all beat our chests and wail about what happened in Nigeria with the kidnapping of almost 300 young school girls,” he said. “But the reality is those girls are going to wind up sexually trafficked and could very well come to this country, like they go to other countries.”

Yet, despite $6 million in annual funding, a dedicated RCMP team and coordination centre, and several amendments that stiffened Criminal Code sanctions, Canada has laid virtually no human trafficking charges since the laws were implemented in 2005. As of the end of 2013, only 97 individuals have ever been convicted of human trafficking, “and/or [human trafficking] related offences (ie forcible confinement, sexual assault, procuring, conspiracy, participating in a criminal organization).” That, according to the RCMP’s own numbers. They do not offer any more data about the charges.

Nevertheless, human trafficking dominated much of the discussion around Bill C-36.

“There isn’t a difference between prostitution and human trafficking,” said Robert Hooper, also with Walk with Me Canada, echoing a common sentiment from the groups at committee.

On the basis of morality

Sex-work groups like Ottawa’s POWER, Victoria’s Peers Resource Society, Montreal’s Stella, Maggie’s in Toronto, and Vancouver’s PACE dispensed with the human trafficking angle and blasted the new laws as having a real impact on the working lives of the workers they represent.

“This shocking new bill stuns and horrifies me,” said Sheri Kiselbach, coordinator of violence prevention at PACE. “It lacks insight, totally disregards evidence-based research and is a deliberate, unrealistic attempt to abolish prostitution in this country.”

The sex-work organizations that testified said their members cautioned Parliament about an overly paternalistic view of sex work. “Although I feel like I had to become a sex worker to support my little girl, it was still my choice, and if I had to do it over again I would,” said Rachel Phillips, executive director of Peers, quoting one of the society’s members.

“When women like myself proclaim they are in the business by choice, but people insist on viewing it as victimization, it insinuates that we are not capable of making decisions for ourselves,” she quoted another.

“The only thing that pushed me towards escorting was my own curiosity,” a third member said.

For those women who do want to leave, sex-work advocates say C-36 does little but criminalize their industry. Decriminalizing the trade, they say, would allow them to screen their clients, work safely indoors, and protect those who do not want to be in the industry.

“Many sex workers will eventually go on to do other things, but Bill C-36 really does seem to be saying, ‘Get out of the sex industry or you’ll make your work more dangerous, or potentially it will get you arrested,’” said Robyn Maynard, of Stella. “It does not actually provide other viable options at the same time.”

Overall, sex work advocates were emphatic that criminalizing the johns in effect criminalizes the workers as well.

They also expressed concern with the bill’s original intent to criminalize sex workers who communicate with their clients anywhere that someone under the age of 18 “can reasonably be expected to be present.” However, in a committee meeting on July 8, Conservatives amended the bill to remove the broad public solicitation ban and instead criminalize only those sex workers who communicate with their clients in public view of a school, playground or daycare centre. The committee also added an amendment to the bill calling for a parliamentary study of its impact in five years.

Other sections of the bill still in place would ban any business offering sexual services and any advertising done by a third party. The sum of the provisions, activists have told Xtra, are disastrous. Lawyers have maintained that the bill simply does not stand up to the test set out by the Supreme Court.

“The underlying logic behind Bill C-36 is not new,” says University of Toronto Trudeau scholar Kyle Kirkup. “Canada, like so many countries around the world, has a long and misguided history of criminalizing sexual activities on the basis of morality.”

Emulating Sweden’s attempts, which have had inconclusive results, will not work, he continues. “We might call this ‘made in Canada’ approach the Nordic model’s bigger, deadlier cousin.”