As the December deadline to create a new prostitution law in Canada approaches, parliament is reconvening during its summer recess for a packed schedule of hearings by the House of Commons justice committee.
The rushed nature of this special session come as the Conservative Canadian government hurries to get its proposed new law (Bill C-36, or Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act) passed. The proposed law criminalises the purchase of sexual services and the material benefit from sexual services, as well as criminalising advertising sexual services online and communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places.
The hearings began on Monday the 7th of July and will run until Thursday the 10th, during which time the committee is expected to hear from more than 60 witnesses over 20 hours of hearings.
The first day’s proceedings heard testimony from, amongst others, NSWP member Maggies: The Toronto Sex Worker Action Project. Executive Director, Jean MacDonald took to the stand and said “any new legislation should be based on security, safety, and access to services, if they choose. C-36 will not do this.” McDonald was disrespectfully interrupted by several MPs and other witnesses as she spoke of the organisation’s work and the case for decriminalisation. Joy Smith, MP for Kildonan – St Paul and a supporter of C-36, even demanded to know, in her only question to the organisation: “do you get paid for your position in helping those prostitutes?” McDonald responded: “Joy, can you say how my employment at Maggie’s impacts this bill?
Chanelle Gallant from Maggie’s also testified, reading a letter from Monica Forrester, an indigenous trans worker, which said “marginalised groups are more likely to be street based and likely to face criminalisation with this bill .. we need laws (that) help us work in safety and dignity.” Forrester was unable to attend the session herself as she was supporting a friend who had been arrested under the current prostitution policy’s communication law.
As the special session was convening, an open letter to Justice Minister Peter MacKay was published, outlining how C-36 could endanger sex workers and could even be unconstitutional. The letter was signed by more than 200 individuals from organisations including Pivot Legal Society, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.
“The prohibition on purchasing sexual services (and communicating anywhere for that purpose)” the letter reads, “will have much the same effect as existing adult prostitution laws. Targeting clients will displace sex workers to isolated areas where prospective customers are less likely to be detected by police. Such criminalization will continue to limit the practical ability of sex workers to screen their clients or negotiate the terms of the transaction, as there will be pressure from clients to proceed as quickly as possible. Sex workers will continue to face barriers to police protection and will be prevented from operating in a safe indoor space, as clients face the potential of being arrested if they attend such spaces.”