WATCH ABOVE: MPs were back on Parliament Hill to debate Canada’s proposed prostitution laws. The marathon session will hear from more than 60 witnesses. Mike Le Couteur reports.
OTTAWA — The proposed prostitution bill could make sex work even more dangerous and may be unconstitutional, more than 200 legal experts said in an open letter to the prime minister today, urging him to reconsider the bill.
In fact, they argue, it’s no better than the old law struck down by the Supreme Court late last year for violating sex workers’ Charter rights.
“We are concerned about the direction your government is taking with respect to adult prostitution in Canada,” the letter begins. “Bill C-36 … proposes a legal regime that criminalizes many aspects of adult prostitution, including the purchase of sexual services, the advertisement of sexual services, and most communication in public for the purpose of prostitution.”
The letter (available in full at the bottom of this page) came as Justice Minister Peter MacKay prepared to defend the bill as the first witness before the House of Commons justice committee, where he said the goal of this legislation is “ultimately abolishing” prostitution.
The Supreme Court of Canada in December struck down the country’s old prostitution law, ruling parts of it violated sex workers’ right to security of the person guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court gave the government one year to replace the law.
Hundreds of legal experts — including constitutional, criminal and public law experts from across the country — now say the Conservative government’s new bill does nothing to address the court’s unanimous decision that the country’s prostitution laws infringed on sex workers’ Charter rights.
“We are concerned that, for the very same reasons that caused the court to strike down these prostitution laws, the criminal regime proposed in Bill C-36 is likely to offend the Charter as well,” the letter reads.
The Conservatives’ bill creates new offences for clients and pimps, but does not criminalize prostitutes themselves.
WATCH: Justice minister Peter MacKay defended the proposed prostitution legislation saying it is charter-compliant
MacKay has said he is open to some amendments, despite his assertion the bill is constitutionally sound and an adequate response to the Supreme Court.
The government, he told the committee Monday, does not believe prostitution is inevitable.
The bill’s goal is to reduce the demand for prostitution … ultimately abolishing it, to the extent possible.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay
Decriminalizing it entirely would only exacerbate “prostitution’s inherent harms and dangers,” MacKay said, pointing to violence, drug- and alcohol-dependence and human trafficking as some of those dangers.
“Accordingly, Bill C-36 does not seek to allow or facilitate the practice of prostitution. To the contrary, its goal is to reduce the demand for prostitution, with a view to discouraging entry into it, deterring participation in it and ultimately abolishing it, to the extent possible,” the minister said during his opening remarks.
A Justice Department discussion paper from earlier this year summarizes the three international approaches taken towards prostitution.
There’s the “Nordic model” used in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, which criminalizes clients and third parties but not prostitutes, and is accompanied by social programs aimed at helping sex workers.
There’s the decriminalization or legalization employed in Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.
And there’s the outright prohibition of both the purchase and sale of sexual services, which is the state of play across the entire United States, with one the notable exception: the state of Nevada.
Monday’s letter to the prime minister focused on three aspects of the bill, introduced last month: prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, banning any advertising from the sex industry and outlawing any offers of sexual services in public places where anyone under 18 years old could reasonably be expected.
The first proposal, the legal experts warn, will likely force sex workers into isolated areas, endangering them due to a decreased ability to screen customers and negotiate terms of service.
“While criminalizing the purchase of sexual services is said to be aimed at protecting sex workers, this type of criminal prohibition will, in fact, do what the current adult prostitution laws do, which is to subject sex workers to a greater risk to their safety,” the letter reads.
The second proposal, they write, will affect sex workers’ ability to work indoors, which flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s ruling that being able to work indoors is pivotal to sex workers’ safety.
The third aspect, the letter argues, will continue to criminalize street sex workers, also forcing them into isolated areas.
“We urge you to keep in mind the harms that the court .. said were caused by criminal prohibitions and to ensure that any future regime conforms to the Charter and does not cause sex workers an increased risk of harm,” the letter concludes before listing the names of 221 legal experts.
This week, the Commons justice committee is slated to hear from more than 60 witnesses over 20 hours between Monday and Thursday. The vast list of those testifying includes sex workers, indigenous women, community workers and experts from Europe.
- With files from The Canadian Press