While Parliament has recessed for the summer, the House of Commons justice committee conducted hearings on the government’s prostitution bill.

From July 7 to 10, the House of Commons Justice Committee heard from over 70 witnesses regarding Bill C-36. Former prostitute Timea Nagy of Walk With Me Canada Victims’ Services spoke in favour of the bill, recounting the abuse she encountered. “Focusing on women and looking at them as victims in this industry will actually provide more opportunities for them to exit, which we’re not seeing right now,” said Natasha Falle, former prostitute and founder of Sex Trafficking Survivors United, who also supported C-36.

Calgary police chief Rick Hanson wants the “complete abolition of prostitution, and passing Bill C-36 is required in order for us to reach this goal.” He said that the $20 million over 5 years intended to help prostitutes leave the trade is not enough, and that police should use the bill to arrest prostitutes to help them quit. “Research tells us that, regardless of which regime or laws are implemented, those who sell sex are exposed to violence, exploitation, degradation and unpreventable harm,” he said.

Lawyer Gunilla Ekberg, advisor for the Swedish government in the 1990s when it implemented the Nordic model which C-36 was modelled after, said that the provision of the law criminalizing the activity of prostitutes was likely unconstitutional and a violation of the Charter as well was international human rights. Kate Quinn of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation said that the criminal records of all prostitutes convicted in the past 30 years should be erased to help them leave the industry.

Others were opposed to C-36. “If this bill becomes law, clients will not provide information on themselves, which is essential to protect ourselves from people who are badly intentioned,” said Émilie Laliberté, spokesman for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. Criminology professor John Lowman from Simon Fraser University claimed that most women involved in prostitution are not trafficked. Leonardo Russomanno of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association said that the law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because its provisions are too broad, disproportionate, arbitrary, and ineffective.

Emily Symons, chair of POWER, wants prostitution legalized. “We envision a world in which people freely choose to do sex work or not to do sex work, and those who choose to can do so safely,” she said. Former prostitute Valerie Scott reasoned that since anti-gay laws in some countries have led to violence against homosexuals, putting restrictions on prostitution will endanger prostitutes. “It was a choice I made, for my daughter, and I’m proud of it,” said prostitute Natasha Potvin.

After four days of committee hearings, the Conservative government passed an amendment to prostitution bill C-36 on July 15 defining the areas where it would be illegal for prostitutes to advertise their services. According to the amendment, it is a crime to sell sex at or near a school, playground, or daycare. The initial version of the bill banned prostitution wherever a minor could reasonably be expected to be, but the measure was opposed by the vast majority of witnesses at the hearings. The amendment was passed despite the opposition of Liberal and NDP committee members.

A proposal by the NDP requesting a committee review of the effect of the law after five years was also passed. A total of 21 amendments were proposed. Green Party leader Elizabeth May said to CBC News that the bill was “so bad” that it could not be amended. She intends to propose motions to delete parts of the legislation during the report stage. The final vote will take place in the fall.

Gwen Landolt

REAL Women’s Gwen Landolt would prefer the government to outlaw prostitution completely.

Gwen Landolt, vice president of REAL Women of Canada, told The Interim that C-36 is a “great improvement over the previous law” and that it would be “insane” to legalize prostitution because it would provide “no protection to the prostitutes.” REAL Women’s position is to make prostitution completely illegal and offer victims the alternative of exiting the lifestyle when they are hauled before court. Landolt suspects that the new law would not make it past the Supreme Court because the judges have shown a history of striking down restrictions on moral behaviour. She is also concerned that permitting prostitutes to advertise their services will expose children to the activity.

Julia Beazley, policy analyst for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and witness before the Justice Committee, told The Interim that the amendment to where sex can be sold was an improvement to the legislation because the original version “left so much room for continued criminalization.” During the hearings, the EFC had proposed that the original clause be modified or scrapped. Beazley said that to further improve the legislation, the punishment for prostitutes selling their services should be put at a lower threshold.