Prostitution bill critics treated as hostile witnesses at committee

Moments after the gavel went down on last week's marathon justice committee hearings on the proposed prostitution law rewrite, Conservative MP Stella Ambler accused the opposition parties of conspiring with critics to undermine the bill.

'The way you tell it, frankly, it sounds like ... a TV sitcom about happy hookers'

Conservative MP Stella Ambler questions a witness during justice committee hearings last week on the government's rewrite of Canada's prostitution laws. (CBC)

After sitting through more than 16 hours of often heart-wrenching witness testimony, Conservative MPs voted to make just one substantive change Tuesday to Justice Minister Peter MacKay's bid to rewrite Canada's prostitution laws, by narrowing the proposed blanket ban on "public communications" related to sex work to apply only to areas near playgrounds, schoolyards and daycare centres.

The change addresses some of the loudest criticism of the bill, but it is an outcome that will almost certainly disappoint the many witnesses who had pleaded with the committee to remove any threat of criminal charges against sex workers.

And it likely won't come as a surprise to those who found themselves facing a distinctly chilly reception from the Conservative contingent on committee.

Just moments after the final round of hearings had wrapped up Thursday, Conservative MP Stella Ambler — who is not a permanent committee member but sat in on the hearings for caucus colleague Kyle Seeback — issued a statement attacking "Trudeau Liberal" and NDP members for attempting to "undermine" the government's bill, and "make it easier for johns and pimps to operate openly in communities across Canada."

How so?

Ambler was particularly perturbed by the Liberals and NDP submitting the names of two witnesses that, she argued, had no business sharing their views on the proposed legislation: University of Victoria researcher Chris Atchison and the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada.

"This is the same Adult Entertainment Association of Canada that, when our government shut down their access to vulnerable overseas women, launched a campaign to recruit 18-year-old high school girls to work in their clubs," Ambler said in her statement.

As for Atchison, described in Ambler's release as a "sociologist": "[He] believes that 'victimization is a two-way street,' and that men who exploit vulnerable prostitutes (who he calls members of the 'sex-buying community') need to be 'understood' and treated in a 'non-judgmental' way," Ambler wrote.

At no point during the appearances of either Atchison or Adult Entertainment Industry Association president Tim Lambrinos did Ambler — or any other Conservative MP — challenge their participation in the process, or confront either witness directly about the claims made in her release.

Sex workers' personal experience questioned

At times, the proceedings took on the tone of the questioning of a hostile witness.

Natasha Potvin, a former sex worker who now volunteers with the Victoria-based sex worker support group PEERS, testified on Thursday. In her opening statement, she stressed that the 15 years she spent in the sex trade — from age 21 to 37 — were entirely voluntary.

Sex worker advocates Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch embrace after learning Canada's highest court struck down the country's prostitution laws last December, giving Ottawa one year to rewrite the law. A Commons committee has been reviewing the new legislation. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It was my choice — a choice I made on behalf of my daughter, and I was proud of it," she said, adding that it was also her choice to share her story with the committee.

Calling her a victim, she said, "is to ignore and denigrate my reality, and does not take my choice into account."

Potvin insisted she has been a victim of discrimination based on that choice. She was visited by child protective services officials, who threatened to take her son away because she was a sex worker. She said that experience left her "very reluctant" to disclose her profession.

"I felt very alone, and without any defences. If anything had happened to me, I wouldn't have reported it."

Potvin's testimony provided first-hand insight from someone with direct knowledge of how the proposed legislative changes could affect sex workers with no desire to exit the industry. She also addressed the safety issues that led the Supreme Court to declare the existing laws inadequate in the Bedford case.

Ambler, however, seemed more interested in discrediting Potvin than asking her to expand on her concerns.

"[You] mentioned that you liked some of your clients, and liked some of them less, but that, overall you're proud of your choice, and that it's worked for you in your life," she noted.

"The way you tell it, frankly, it sounds like, you know, a TV sitcom about happy hookers, and I just can't reconcile this with the other things I've heard."

'We don't have time for that'

If this bill was enacted, she wondered,"would it put you out of business?"

It would prevent her from being safe while she worked, Potvin replied, by making it impossible for her to screen potential clients, as well as potentially discouraging "good clients" from availing themselves of her services.

"It's the bad clients," she reminded the committee "who are the ones who aren't afraid of the police or the law."

Other former sex workers on the witness list were pointedly ignored.

In a blog post, Kerry Porth, a former sex worker who testified alongside PIVOT lawyer Elin Sigurdson, noted that, despite her "direct experience and expertise," she wasn't asked a single question.

"When my colleague Elin tried to defer a question that was more appropriate for someone with experience in sex work to answer, Conservative MP Stella Ambler looked me in the eyes and said, 'We don’t have time for that,'" she recalled.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.