OTTAWA - The Conservative government’s anti-prostitution bill is one step closer to becoming law amid complaints that the governing party overly relied on witnesses with strong evangelical ties to support and promote its abolitionist approach.
The Conservative-dominated justice committee voted Tuesday to send Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, back to the Commons for swift passage in the fall with very few changes.
“It is our intention to make illegal the purchase of sexual services or the communication for the purposes of purchasing sexual services of any person, anywhere, anytime, in Canada, in the light of day, in the darkness of the shadows, inside or outside, wherever you can think of in Canada, up a tree, down a rabbithole, in a beaver den,” said Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister. “We’re going to go after those purchasers and tell them this is not a right.”
Conservative MPs brought an amendment to address concerns expressed even by its most ardent supporters about a clause that would have criminalized prostitution in any public area “where children could reasonably expect to be present.”
Agreeing it was vague, the government agreed to drop that test and reworded it to impose a clear criminal prohibition against communicating to buy or sell sex in any area “open to public view, that is or is next to a school ground, playground or daycare centre.”
NDP critic Françoise Boivin scoffed that the provision is still wide open — “what’s a playground?” — and said it shows the Conservatives’ real intent is to criminalize prostitution wherever and however it is practiced and not heed the warnings of experts in the field.
In fact, the Conservatives’ concession still runs counter to nearly unanimous suggestions from witnesses including those with evangelical or faith-based ties. Nearly all opposed any move that would leave “victims” of prostitution — the sex workers themselves — open to criminal charges and the risk of a criminal record, which makes it harder to help them exit the trade.
Witness after witness warned it runs counter to the Conservatives’ stated intent to criminalize only the purchasers, not the “victims.”
But Dechert, the bill’s chief defender, cited testimony of police officers who claimed it was a “tool” to intervene with prostitutes to help them escape their pimps and quit the sex trade, and emphasized the government’s intent is to protect children from being exposed to prostitution or being recruited “in school bathrooms.”
Dechert at times appeared to contradict the government’s declaration that prostitutes are, mainly female, victims of exploitation who need protection. He said some women do freely choose to enter the sex trade but said they’ll never be safe on the streets no matter what the government does, yet he claimed the government has responded to the Supreme Court’s concerns about their safety by at least allowing them the ability to safely ply their trade indoors in the privacy of their own homes. They’ll be allowed to advertise their own services, and hire bodyguards, but not for commercial enterprises.
Dechert portrayed witnesses who disagreed with the Conservatives’ move to criminalize the purchase of sex as promoting the view “let the good times roll, every community in Canada can be a red light district.”
The Conservatives voted down almost all opposition-proposed amendments, except for an NDP proposal to review the legislation, conceding to a review by a Commons committee within five years, not the NDP’s proposed speedier review within two years.
Given the Conservatives’ majority in the Commons, the swift passage of C-36 at all stages, including a Senate study, is all but guaranteed.
However, the strong influence of groups who brought a Biblical-inspired approach alarmed groups on the other side.
“They represented a full quarter of all the witnesses, 12 groups, while some groups that work directly with sex workers were not invited to participate,” said Kerry Porth, head of Pivot Legal Society of Vancouver.
“Evangelicals were presenting a moral perspective on sex work that is not guided by social scientific evidence nor reflects the opinion of most Canadians who are against Bill C-36,” she told the Star.
“We all know the prime minister is a member of evangelical faith and so is that reflective of Canadian society as a whole?”
“The committee’s role is to ensure that new laws respect the Charter including sex workers’ rights to safety and liberty, not that they respect the religious values of a single religion in a country as diverse as Canada. Evangelicals also promote values that are inconsistent with the rights of women and LGBTQ communities and it should concern everyone that groups that donate so much money to the Conservative party would hold such influence with the committee.”
Julia Beazley, who testified on behalf of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said in a democratic society “everyone is entitled to have their voice on these issues. These hearings are public, everyone is invited to come and speak to the government.”
She said it is “disingenuous” and “politically expedient to try and frame the problem as evangelical voices versus current sex workers who really know what’s going on.”
“Our position on Bill C-36, while it is most definitely informed by Biblical principles, is not unique. The committee heard a very similar message from numerous women’s organizations, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and the Elizabeth Fry Societies, and frontline service providers who work with women in prostitution, the Manitoba attorney general, the police and most importantly, survivor groups and voices.”
“At end of day the one thing I think we all share a desire to see women safe and protected, we disagree on how best to do that,” said Beazley.
Frances Shaver, a Concordia University professor who has studied sex work in Canada and asked to be a witness but was not invited, nevertheless submitted a written brief. Shaver says her research, and that of many of her colleagues, does not support Bill C-36.
The federal justice department refused again Tuesday to release the government’s own public opinion survey research.
It has cited four pages of empirical research, most of it international, in its technical paper to the justice committee.
But of 16 studies focused on Canada, only one (related to the incidence of human trafficking in Ontario, not prostitution) appears to support the government’s approach. The opposition parties did not oppose tougher trafficking provisions. The other 15 studies support an approach to prostitution based on decriminalization.
Queried about the lack of supportive Canadian research, justice department officials told the Star most of the supportive research comes from countries that have tried the so-called Nordic model and those that frown on the New Zealand decriminalization model. One official downplayed concerns over the lack of empirical evidence in the Canadian context, suggesting research results support the view taken by the researchers at the outset, whether for or against decriminalization.
Maggie de Vries, whose sister, Sarah de Vries, was one of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims, said she opposed the bill, asked to appear but was not invited.
“As I got a sense of how things unfolded I began to suspect that the powers that be may not have wanted a family member of a murdered sex worker speaking out against the bill,” she told the Star.
De Vries sent the committee a written brief anyway that reads: “It is clear to me that criminalizing sex work in any way brings danger to sex workers and diminishes all of us by reinforcing our prejudices. I was glad when the laws were struck down last year, and I am appalled by the laws that are now lined up to take their place. These new laws will make life harder for sex workers, bring more violence their way, and make it more difficult for those who would like to change their lives to do so.”
Neither the NDP nor the Liberals would comment on whether there was an undue weight given to witnesses with evangelical ties.
“That’s their (the Conservatives’) prerogative,” said Boivin. She said she wanted to hear from more constitutional experts, but the NDP gave priority to frontline workers in submitting its list.
Nevertheless, Boivin said the open letter to Harper last week, signed by 230 lawyers and legal academics who said the bill “is likely to offend the Charter,” should be a big red flag.
Liberal justice critic Sean Casey said he called witnesses who he believed “had something to contribute”, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, even if he didn’t agree with them.
As for which witnesses were called and which weren’t, Conservative committee chairman Mike Wallace said the Conservatives called 30 or 31 and could have called more, but instead allowed the NDP to call 21 and the Liberals about 8. If anyone was under-represented, he said, it was the government side.
Among witnesses who adopted an evangelical or faith-based approach:
• Hope for the Sold Works through ITeams Canada, a “Christian Mission Organization dedicated to helping churches meet the physical and spiritual needs of widows, orphans, and refugees.”
• u-r home A faith-based, grassroots organization registered in Ontario as a not-for-profit, working out of a Newmarket, Ont.-based church.
• Defend Dignity. The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada runs Defend Dignity, and is “committed to the abolition of prostitution.” The committee heard testimony by director Glendyne Gerrard who served as National Director of Women’s Ministries and as a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance family of churches.
• Servants Anonymous Society of Calgary Website says, “God inspired the founding of SAS and is the inspiration of the practice of our ongoing work.”
• Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Julia Beazley testified as did lawyer Georgina Lang, who acted counsel for the EFC as intervenor in the Bedford case
• Ratanak Intl. Describes itself as a “Christ-centered organization.” Its founder, ex-RCMP Brian McConaghey, testified.
• SIM Canada, an “an international, interdenominational evangelical mission,” sent its Youth Minister John Cassells to testify
• REED, Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity (http://embracedignity.org/?page=about) Says it “seeks to end trafficking and sexual exploitation and strengthen the anti-trafficking movement through a comprehensive approach to change in the radical tradition of Christ.”
• Rising Angels. Has partnered with Defend Dignity and the EFC in townhalls to oppose prostitution. Former prostitute Katarina MacLeod, who regularly speaks to police diversion programs or “john” schools, has posted that in 2011 she “embraced the Christian faith and gave control of her life over to God . . . and consistently seeks God’s direction in her work.”
• EVE: Exploited Voices Educating describes itself as a “volunteer, non profit group of former sex industry women who challenge the idea of sex as work.” Its founder and executive director Trisha Baptie, who testified, has said her “life is based on two things: one, a truth — Jesus loves me ; and one thing he said — take care of the poor, widows and orphans.”
• BridgeNorth does not have its own website, but its representative Casandra Diamond, who testified, has participated with many of the above witnesses and Conservative MP Joy Smith in a recent town on Bill C-36.