Persistent Albertan dogging 'fair deal' panel advocating for changes to laws around sex trade

Hamish Tregarthen is pretty sure the Alberta government panel won't act on his concerns but that won't stop him from trying.

Hamish Tregarthen doubts panel will act on his concerns, but he won't stop trying

Hamish Tergarthen has attended all but two of the town halls held by the Alberta government's "fair deal" panel. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC News)

An Albertan is following the Alberta government's "fair deal" panel in hopes of persuading its panel members to consider decriminalizing the sex trade.

Hamish Tregarthen, 28, has attended all but two of the panel's eight meetings so far. At each meeting, he repeats his contention that decriminalizing the purchase of sex is important for sex workers' safety. 

Under a Canadian law enacted in 2014, it's legal to sell sex but not to buy it.

"Sex work is still very stigmatized," Tregarthen said in an interview following the Jan. 8 meeting in Fort McMurray. "Sex workers are not always able to come out and speak publicly."

The "fair deal" panel town halls have focused on getting feedback from Albertans on what a "fair deal" with Canada would look like. Topics explored have included creating a provincial revenue agency, withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating a provincial police force.

Tregarthen​​​​​​​, who said he has no personal connection to the sex trade, feels compelled to be an advocate after learning about it several years ago during his post-secondary studies. 

He wants sex workers to be able to create a college under the health professions act. 

And despite his efforts, he is doubtful the panel will make any recommendations on the topic.

"I'm pretty sure they're not going to," said Tregarthen​​​​​​​, adding he will find other ways to continue raising the issue.

Tregarthen​​​​​​​ isn't alone in advocating for changes to laws around the sex trade. 

"Decriminalization is definitely the safest option for sex workers and we are advocating for government to make changes to legislation," said Karyn Jackson, who leads support services for the Calgary-based HIV Community Link.

Panel member and MLA Tany Yao (right) has developed respect for Tergarthen's commitment, even though he doesn't think the topic is reflective of the panel's mandate. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

It would give workers more basic rights and would allow them to develop health and safety standards, Jackson added.

"It helps with identification of sex trafficking and exploitation, as sex workers are much more likely to go and speak with police and have actually a better and healthier relationship with authorities."

Chris Atchison, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, said he's never met a sex worker rights' organization that has argued for anything other than decriminalization.

"If their clients are criminalized, sex workers are criminalized," said Atchison, who works with the university's Human Early Learning Partnership, based at the School of Population and Public Health.

When Bill C-36 was passed in 2014, the government didn't give consideration to the input of sex workers or groups advocating for sex workers' rights, he said.

"The whole sex industry … is a political hot potato. So I guess this person coming forward right now is basically forcing someone to hold the potato a little bit," said Atchison.

Tany Yao, an MLA and member of the panel, didn't pay too much attention at first to Tregarthen's appearances at the panel meetings. 

"But then he kept on coming," said Yao.

He has a great deal of respect for the commitment that Tregarthen​​​​​​​ has shown, Yao said, but thinks the discussion is "off-topic."

"Apparently, he's doing it on his own dime and he's become more articulate with each exchange," Yao said. "As much as I can respect and support him in fighting slavery — especially with women and children in the sex industry — my focus is more on getting fair treatment for Alberta."