OTTAWA - The shadow of serial prostitute-killer Robert Pickton loomed large over parliamentary hearings this week as supporters and critics of a proposed anti-prostitution law delivered emotional appeals to MPs to heed their conflicting advice.
A Commons justice committee is trying to determine whether Bill C-36 — the Conservative government’s response to a Supreme Court ruling that struck down three prostitution laws — would create more dangerous working conditions for another Pickton to prey on vulnerable street workers. Or whether the bill and its new declarations that buying sex is illegal would stop “predators and perverts” and eradicate prostitution — the goal set out by Justice Minister Peter MacKay.
The answer is far from clear, three days into wrenching stories from mothers who’ve lost daughters to coercive pimps, cops seeking new ways to break up human trafficking rings, and women who defy what they called “moralizing” stereotypes and claim a right to safe, voluntary work as prostitutes.
Among the most emotional words heard by MPs at the rare summer sitting were from a woman not even in the room.
Bridget Perrier, co-founder of Toronto-based Sextrade 101, read aloud a letter from her stepdaughter Angel Wolfe.
Wolfe’s birth mother Brenda Anne Wolfe was a Vancouver prostitute, whose murder was one of the six the Port Coquitlam pig farmer was convicted of in 2007. Pickton told police he killed 49 women in his killing spree.
“I was six years old when she was murdered, and nine years old when her jawbone was found in a pig trough. I am one of the 98 orphans who were left behind by that monster,” Wolfe wrote.
“I blame prostitution and addiction for my mother’s death . . . I believe that Bill C-36 will save vulnerable women like my mom.”
Perrier, an aboriginal woman and former prostitute, said her daughter, now 21, was “sickened” their deaths are cited by the bill’s critics as reason to legalize prostitution or regulate it under health and safety laws, and insulted by references to it as “the Pickton bill.”
Perrier’s voice shook as she read: “On behalf of the 98 orphans, we do not want our mothers’ deaths to be the reason prostitution is legitimized.”
Yet opponents of the bill say it will undoubtedly expose prostitutes to more violence.
Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, two of the plaintiffs in the Bedford case that led to the Supreme Court decision in December, bluntly told the committee the changes will “force us into dark industrial zones . . . Robert Pickton’s killing fields.”
University of Victoria researcher Chris Atchison cited his 18 years of research into adult consensual money-for-sex exchanges, and surveys with more than 2,500 “johns,” telling MPs most clients are not violent predators. His research showed two to five per cent admitted to having used violence against prostitutes.
Almost all witnesses agreed on only two things: $20 million in federal funding for “exit” programs is not enough; and the Conservative government should drop a provision that makes it an offence for “anyone” to communicate about buying or selling sex in public places where children could “reasonably expected to be present.”
B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawyer Josh Paterson warned it will criminalize sex workers in most Canadian cities, downtowns and suburbs, and will not pass constitutional scrutiny.
In fact, a technical paper by the federal Justice department says the provision will apply to communications in the real physical world, or to “virtual locations” like Facebook.
The paper says the offence “could capture communications between two or more persons that take place in virtual locations that are publicly accessible, such as on social networking sites like Facebook, if two people communicate with each other for the purposes of exchanging sexual services for consideration on such a site and it is determined that children could reasonably be expected to view that communication.”