OTTAWA - The Conservative government should show its commitment to “victims” of prostitution and help them exit the sex trade by erasing the criminal records of all prostitutes convicted in the past 30 years, a Commons committee heard Thursday.
The novel recommendation to amend Bill C-36 by wiping past records emerged on the fourth and last day of hearings into the anti-prostitution bill.
It came, surprisingly, not as a challenge from one of many opponents to the bill but from a staunch supporter of the Conservative government’s abolitionist approach.
Kate Quinn of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation said the move would be a “great breath of hope” and help those whose travels, education, job applications or volunteer efforts are hindered by carrying a criminal record under the anti-soliciting law passed 30 years ago by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government.
Quinn told Commons justice committee MPs they should provide an amnesty mechanism for past convictions under Section 213 of the Criminal Code.
“Remove this burden from their shoulders and welcome them into Canadian society,” Quinn said. “We’d like to see a whole different approach, with the intent of this bill, to recognize vulnerabilities and exploitation” said Quinn, testifying via videoconference from Glasgow.
“We would like to see us go one step further and just expunge those records.”
Her suggestion was immediately welcomed by Liberal MP Sean Casey as “frankly very refreshing.” He pointed out the Conservative government has made record suspensions — formerly known as pardons — more expensive to obtain, with longer waiting times and more restrictions on who qualifies. All other witnesses on the same panel backed the recommendation.
Communicating for the purposes of prostitution was one of three prostitution laws the Supreme Court of Canada declared unconstitutional last December.
It has, however, been rewritten by the Conservatives in Bill C36 — a bill that overhauls the entire legal regime governing adult consensual prostitution-related activity. The same bill also toughens measures against human trafficking and child sexual exploitation — offences the government views as linked to prostitution but were not affected by December’s Bedford ruling, as it’s known.
The bill targets the buyers of sex — the “johns” and pimps — but it still criminalizes prostitutes who impede traffic and prohibits prostitutes from communicating to sell sexual services in a public place “where children may reasonably expected to be present.”
Only two other near-unanimous recommendations emerged out of four days of intense and often impassioned testimony: that the $20 million over five years in federal money for exit programs is “woefully inadequate,” as Calgary’s police chief said.
And nearly every one of the more than 70 witnesses who appeared advised the Conservative government to drop the bill’s criminalization of prostitutes who communicate in a public place “where children may reasonably expected to be present.”
It is seen as overly broad likely to drive prostitutes into remote or isolated locations where their safety will be endangered — the very working condition that the Supreme Court of Canada denounced in its Bedford ruling.
The committee will consider possible amendments to the bill when it begins clause-by-clause study next Tuesday.