Peter MacKay insists new prostitution bill will protect sex workers

Justice Minister Peter MacKay insists the Conservative government's new prostitution bill will mean safer conditions for sex workers.

Senate committee kicks off three days of 'pre-study' hearings on proposed law

Justice Minister Peter MacKay told senators reviewing his prostitution bill Tuesday that the legislation will mean safer conditions for sex workers. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's justice minister insists that once passed, the Conservative government's new prostitution bill will mean safer conditions for sex workers.

The ultimate goal, however, is to end the sex trade in Canada altogether.

"Let us be clear about Bill C-36's ultimate objective: that is to reduce the demand for prostitution with a view towards discouraging entry into it, deterring participation in it and ultimately abolishing it to greatest extent possible," Peter MacKay said.

MacKay testified this morning before a Senate committee studying Bill C-36, the government's response to last year's Supreme Court decision striking down the existing prostitution law.

His testimony kicked off a three-day "pre-study"of his bid to rewrite Canada's prostitution laws.

C-36 is the government's response to a Supreme Court decision last year that struck down the existing law as unconstitutional and gave the government a year to come up with a replacement.

Opponents of the new bill say it doesn't address the high court's assertion that the old law violated the rights of sex workers by exposing them to undue risk.

They say prostitutes will be placed at greater risk under the new law, since prospective clients will face arrest, making transactions more fraught with danger.

But MacKay says the bill gives sex workers the ability to create better working conditions and immunity from prosecution if they seek help from police.

Still, he says he expects the courts will scrutinize the new legislation closely and examine individual cases as they arise.

"Prostitution is now de facto illegal, but the emphasis and the focus is on the purchaser and the perpetrator — the pimps who are attempting to exploit and gain materially from prostitution itself," MacKay said.

Safer work conditions?

Senators struggled with the idea of making it a crime to buy sex when prostitutes are allowed to sell it of their own free will.

It is a nuance the courts will likely explore, MacKay allowed.

"They will investigate, without doubt, and will look at the individual circumstances in every case," he said, adding the issue of whether any sex worker actually operates under free will must be part of that examination.

Criminalizing the clients could just make the exploitation worse, suggested Conservative Sen. Don Plett.

"Is the pimp going to say to the 14, 15 or 16 year old girl, 'I am losing many of my customers...you go out and hustle a little harder to make sure you keep as much activity going as possible,'" he asked.

Hopefully the prostitutes will feel empowered enough to come forward and report such exploitative behaviour, MacKay responded.

And that's what women need, suggested Timea Nagy, who testified at the committee Tuesday.

Nagy, who describes herself as a victim of human trafficking who now works with other victims, said she hears the concerns of some sex workers who fear the new rules could create more dangerous conditions.

But she said those who choose to work in the sex industry have options and luxuries available that trafficking victims don't.

"They have been lured, manipulated and they are being kept against their will while serving 10-15 clients a day, like I did once, just so they can eat once a day," Nagy said.

"They are not doing this for money, to save up. They are doing this so they don't get beaten."

In a landmark ruling last December, the Supreme Court concluded that several key provisions of the existing prostitution laws were unconstitutional, and gave the government one year to come up with a new legal framework.

MacKay introduced legislation in May to create what he has referred to as a "Made in Canada" law, which borrows heavily from the so-called Nordic model by focusing legal sanctions on the buyers, rather than the sellers of sex.

Earlier this summer, the House justice committee heard from sex workers, anti-trafficking experts, academics and advocacy groups from both sides of the debate over legalizing prostitution.

After three days of hearings, MPs voted to amend the bill to narrow the proposed restrictions on "public communication" to cover only areas in the vicinity of schoolyards, daycares and playgrounds.

That change — and, specifically, whether it goes far enough to address the concern that the new rules will do little to protect the safety and security of sex workers — will likely be one of the main issues up for discussion as the Senate committee begins its review of the bill.

Witness list for Tuesday, September 9, 2014

  • The Honourable Peter MacKay, P.C., M.P., Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
  • Nathalie Levman, Counsel, Criminal Law Policy Section (Justice Canada)
  • Carole Morency, Director General and Senior General Counsel, Criminal Law Policy Section (Justice Canada)
  • Donald K. Piragoff, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy Sector (Justice Canada)
  • Michèle Audette, President (Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC))
  • Teresa Edwards, Director of International Affairs and Human Rights (Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC))
  • Robert Hooper, Chairperson, Board of Directors (Walk With Me Canada)
  • Timea E. Nagy, Founder and Front-Line Victim Care Worker (Walk With Me Canada)
  • Kim Pate, Executive Director (Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies)
  • Julia Beazley, Policy Analyst (The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada)
  • Suzanne Jay, Member (Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution)
  • Alice Lee, Member (Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution)
  • K. Brian McConaghy, Director, Ratanak International (As an individual)
  • Katrina Pacey, Litigation Director (Pivot Legal Society)
  • Kerry Porth, Chair, Board of Directors (Pivot Legal Society)
  • Stephanie Claivaz-Loranger, Senior Policy Analyst (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network)
  • Kara Gillies, Member (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network)
  • Glendene Grant, Founder (Mothers Against Trafficking Humans (M.A.T.H.))
  • Ed Smith (As an individual)
  • Linda Smith (As an individual)

With files from CBC's Kady O'Malley


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