Justice Minister Peter MacKay arrives at a Commons Justice committee meeting Monday, July 7, on the government's prostitution bill. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Justice Minister Peter MacKay is warning MPs that prostitution will be decriminalized if his proposed legislation isn't in place by the end of the year, but says he expects a Supreme Court challenge if Parliament passes the bill into law.
"Importantly, if we do not respond legislatively within the year, most adult prostitution-related activities will be decriminalized," MacKay said in his opening statement at the House justice committee hearings on Bill C-36.
The Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada's old prostitution law last December and gave it a year to replace it with one that would comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Critics say some of the measures struck down by the court won't be fixed under MacKay's bill. He says he's open to constructive amendments, but defends the bill as Charter of Rights compliant.
But he says he expects critics will challenge the bill in court.
"I'm not going to predict what the courts will do, but I predict that there are those who disagree with this approach and so they may very well choose to challenge the law. It's not uncommon, put it that way," MacKay said.
'Inherent harms and dangers'
MacKay told the committee that the government doesn't accept the idea that prostitution is inevitable and that prostitution victimizes the communities in which it takes place, as well as the women who sell sexual services.
"The government maintains that prostitution's inherent harms and dangers would only grow and be exacerbated in a regime that perpetrates and condones the exploitation of vulnerable individuals through legalized prostitution," he said.
Jean McDonald, executive director of Maggie's, which represents Toronto sex-trade workers, said the bill won't make such work less dangerous.
"This legislation will only further marginalize, further victimize and push sex workers into dangerous and potentially violent situations. This bill does nothing to protect the rights of sex workers in this country. What we will see with this legislation is the same kind of harms as under the same laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court. We will see more murdered and missing women as a result of this legislation," McDonald said following MacKay's committee appearance.
Leonardo Russomanno, who represents the Criminal Lawyers' Association, told MPs the legislation wouldn't withstand a charter challenge because the provisions are overly broad, disproportionate and arbitrary and won't achieve their goals.
"In our view, Bill C-36 is bad policy and bad law," he said.
Right to security at issue
Prostitution itself was legal in Canada under the old law, but most related activities — including communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, pimping and running a brothel — were criminal offences.
The Supreme Court said that amounted to a violation of the basic Charter right to security of the person was concerned that the provisions unduly increased the risk to sex workers.
The Conservatives' new bill creates new offences for clients and pimps, but does not criminalize prostitutes themselves.
It also cracks down on advertising and selling sexual services in public places where a child could reasonably be expected to be present.
Timea Nagy of Walk With Me Canada Victims' Services said she supports the government's proposed law, and says the vast majority of sex workers are forced into the industry.
Nagy described her horrifying experience as a victim of human trafficking. Her first encounter was with three men at a massage parlour.
"I closed my eyes, and I looked up and I was thinking that if anyone would have seen this, would anyone come and rescue me? Only to find out later that my so-called bodyguard was watching the whole thing on video," she said.
"I was indoors, it was safe, they paid for their services, but nobody told me the rules because I was new to it, so I was raped for about an hour by three different men."
Not what research shows
Another witness, however, contradicted Nagy, and said the vast majority of women in the sex trade are not trafficked.
"Most women are not trafficked. That's what the research literature says. Obviously there are many, many different experiences and some of them are truly awful. But if we want to talk about the nature of prostitution across the whole of it, we need to understand that there are many different kinds of prostitution," said John Lowman, a criminology professor from Simon Fraser University.
Lowman also took issue with Nagy's assertion that the average entry age into prostitution is 14.
"That is a preposterous claim. There is only one piece of research that supports it. It is a study of juveniles that excluded adults. If you look at research which includes both juveniles and adults, the average age is generally 18 or well above that," he said.
New Democrat MP Craig Scott questioned MacKay about his assertion that all sex-trade workers are exploited.
"Does it matter that some sex workers or prostitutes see what they do as legitimate? They will express what they do as an exercise of choice," Scott said.
"I'm not saying anywhere near all [of them.... I'm wondering what that makes them in your eyes and in the eyes of this law," he said.
60 witnesses over 20 hours of hearings
MacKay said some of that will be up to the courts to decide.
"We believe that prostitution is inherently dangerous and exploitative.... What I believe is that we shouldn't normalize it, we shouldn't condone it or support it. We should work to help people exit prostitution. And I believe we need to minimalize [sic] to the extent possible the dangers associated with prostitution," he said.
Parliamentary committees rarely convene during the summer recess.
This week, the committee expected to hear from more than 60 witnesses over 20 hours of hearings set to begin today and run until Thursday morning.
The vast list of those testifying includes sex workers, indigenous women, community workers and experts from Europe.
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