Peter MacKay faces balancing act with justice agenda, court rulings

Revamping the nation's prostitution laws was decidedly not on the government's law-and-order agenda until the Supreme Court of Canada put it there. It's just one of the thorny issues Justice Minister Peter MacKay will have to manage while pushing ahead with other changes to the justice system.

Prostitution laws, assisted suicide just two issues that will complicate law-and-order program

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says he plans to proceed with a victims' Bill of Rights, cyberbullying legislation and changes sentencing for violent crimes committed by the mentally ill - while also tackling the Supreme Court's ruling on Canada's prostitution laws and a pending hearing on assisted suicide. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Revamping the nation's prostitution laws was decidedly not on the government's official law-and-order agenda until the Supreme Court of Canada put it there.

The court also added assisted suicide into the mix when it agreed to hear an appeal out of B.C. on euthanasia in January.

In December, the top court struck down the laws banning brothels, prohibiting solicitation and living off the profits of sex work.

"This idea of having these common bawdy houses is of concern, particularly when one thinks about the potential for this to open Canada up as a sex-tourism destination," said Justice Minister Peter MacKay in an interview with CBC News.

MacKay said he discussed the issue with officials in his department recently. He said staff have looked at approaches taken in other other countries, including the so-called Nordic model of legislation that is enforced in Sweden and Norway. He said the government intends to draft legislation that would help people transition out of sex work while punishing the pimps and johns.

"We believe that prostitution is intrinsically degrading and harmful to vulnerable persons, especially women and we intend to protect women and protect society generally from exploitation and abuse," said MacKay.

The minister said the process of drafting new legislation will include extensive consultations with experts, the provincial and territorial governments as well as the public.

Prostitution isn't a complex issue for the government alone. Françoise Boivin, the NDP's justice critic, said the issue is a difficult one for the opposition as well.

"It's going to derail a bit (the government's) agenda for the year, especially because prostitution's got a deadline. So we have 12 months. If all parties dreaded the moment that they would have to stand on the issue one way or the other, well the moment is now."

But, she adds, prostitution won't be the only sensitive social topic to disrupt the government's law-and-order agenda.

MacKay anticipates that the assisted suicide issue will end up in government's lap.

Cause for 'reflection'

So far the government's position has been that the Criminal Code provisions prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia are in place to protect the most vulnerable. But, a lot has changed since the Supreme Court refused a request from Sue Rodriguez two decades ago to have a doctor help end her life. Many countries and two U.S. states have legalized assisted suicide.

MacKay said he's prepared for an intense national discussion.

"It all depends on your perspective and experience. I know Steven Fletcher for example, who survived a horrendous accident, his insights and personal perspective on this have caused me a lot of reflection to be quite honest," MacKay said.

Fletcher, who is Canada's first quadriplegic MP, supports assisted suicide.

Boivin said debates about assisted suicide and prostitution are issues the government doesn't want to be discussing so close to an election.

"It will bring back a lot of their righteous people who were a bit disappointed on the government's attitude and Stephen Harper's promise to not re-open the abortion issue," she said.

Victims' rights, sentencing

But MacKay said issues such as prostitution will not dominate the entire legislative agenda. He said he remains focused on, among other things, a Canadian victims' Bill of Rights, cyberbullying, tougher sentences for people who commit sexual offences against children and amendments to the law relating to people found not-criminally-responsible for their actions due to a mental disorder.

The latter bill would create a new, high-risk designation for those who are violent and would keep them in secure medical facilities.

"We feel that the element of the risk that a further violent act could be committed justifies bringing in this bill that will provide greater scrutiny and greater assurance that the public is protected," the minister said.

The government will also find itself defending its record this session. The Conservatives have been in power long enough now that challenges to some of their earlier pieces of legislation are making their way to the top court.

Graham Mayeda teaches law at the University of Ottawa and says most of those challenges have something in common. "A big thrust of the legislation has been to reduce the discretion that judges have to apply the law in a way that's suitable for the circumstances of the offender that's before them," he said.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard three appeals related to the government's Truth in Sentencing Act.  Mayeda says the government can also expect to see high-level challenges to some mandatory minimum sentences.

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