- Our Town
Protect or prosecute? The sex-work debate
By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - Two contradictory portraits of prostitution emerged during this week's parliamentary hearings — one, empowered women free to choose to sell their bodies for sex; the other, victims of abuse in need of rescue.
The victim narrative, central to the Conservative government's new prostitution bill, could not mask what emerged as a potential major flaw in the proposed law: it still treats prostitutes as criminals.
That's significant because it could set the stage for a successful challenge of the new bill at the Supreme Court of Canada, the very same court that struck down the old prostitution law as unconstitutional just last year.
Throughout four days of hearings by the House of Commons justice committee, a majority of witnesses sounded the alarm about a section of the bill that makes it illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution in public places, where children could be present.
"We believe prostitutes themselves must be held immune to this provision understanding that they, themselves, are victims. We recommend the bill be reflected here to amend this," Marina Giacomin, of the Servants Anonymous Society of Calgary, testified Thursday.
"We believe this will fortify the legislation against further legal or human rights challenges."
Giacomin was the 11th witness to testify during the fourth and final day of rare summer committee hearings.
All 10 of her predecessors delivered the same message about the same section of the bill, as did four more who followed her. They echoed the testimony of more than two dozen witnesses spread out over the previous three days.
The controversial provision had its supporters, however, including the Canadian Police Association and two municipal police chiefs. The two chiefs said they wanted to retain the right to arrest prostitutes as an investigative tool to get at pimps and other more senior players in the sex and human trafficking industry.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who kicked off the proceedings Monday as the committee's opening witness, said he considers the bill constitutionally sound, albeit likely to face a further court challenge.
"We believe this is a strong bill as currently written and will protect vulnerable Canadians and our communities from this inherently dangerous activity," MacKay's spokeswoman Mary Ann Dewey-Plante said Thursday in an emailed response to questions.
"The committee is responsible for a review of the legislation and can propose amendments as it sees fit. We look forward to the committee's feedback on this very important bill."
The Supreme Court struck down Canada's old prostitution law last December, saying it exposed sex workers to undue risks that constituted a violation of their basic Charter right to security of the person.
The Conservatives responded with a new bill that creates new offences for clients and pimps, but does not generally criminalize prostitutes themselves — except if they communicate to sell their services in a public place where children might be.
"This law, if it's put forward and becomes law, will replicate the same harms that we see under the communicating provision," said Emily Symons, head of Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist.
Symons also took exception with the core assumption of the new bill: that prostitutes, primarily young women and girls, are victims who are being exploited.
"I would never want to take away the option of sex work from someone, but I would want to create more options so that everyone can make the decision whether they want to do sex work or they don't want to do sex work, and that people who do sex work can do it safely," she said.
Many fellow sex workers blasted that assumption, perhaps none more eloquently than Timea Nagy, a former prostitute turned care worker.
"I'm having a really hard time listening to the debate about using words like 'sex work,'" Nagy testified.
"When I go to work and I get punched in the face, held down and a gun held against my head, to the point that I have to go the bathroom and lock myself in, hoping that someone will save me ... I don't like to call that work."
Gunilla Ekberg, a Canadian lawyer who helped Sweden craft its prostitution policy, testified that those who promote prostitution as work and lobby for its preservation are part of a "pro-violation constituency."
She defined that as essentially the upper echelons of the sex industry and those who "want to make more profits" at the expense of the human rights of mainly young women.
The committee heard poignant testimony about the pain of such violations from parents who have lost their daughters to prostitution.
Glendine Grant described how her daughter, Jesse, disappeared eight years ago after an ill-fated trip to Nevada with her pimp.
"I have no proof that Jessie's not alive or dead so I go on the assumption that she is alive," said Grant, the founder of Mothers Against Trafficking Humans.
"When we do find her, she's going to see that there has been fights in her name and changes brought about."
Ed and Linda Smith of Regina lost their 18-year-old daughter Sherry for good in 1990 — six months pregnant at the time —when she was found murdered, a year after she fell into prostitution.
Sherry's killer was never brought to justice, but her parents are determined to spare other families their fate. The Smiths created a presentation that they've delivered more than 800 times to elementary school children.
Ed Smith said he is moved by the stories of "the terrible things that have happened" to survivors of the sex trade.
"These women are not criminals. They are victims. And (they) deserve protection."