Prostitution bill falls short

Peter MacKay has taken his government’s victims-first law-and-order policy to its logical, absurdist, conclusion.

Peter MacKay has taken his government’s victims-first law-and-order policy to its logical, absurdist, conclusion.

MacKay now aspires to eliminate the victim.

Laudatory as that aspiration may be, it only highlights the weaknesses in his prostitution bill which is under the microscope this week in Ottawa.

In MacKay’s world, prostitution in this country is a two-sided, black-and-white reality, predators and perverts versus victims.

All prostitutes, in this world, are vulnerable and victims and there is no such thing as a mature, fully functioning adult who has decided that she (or he) wants to earn money in this manner.

So the justice minister, with the backing of Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson and others, believes one day Canada can abolish prostitution, a quixotic quest that mixes legitimate concern for young victims on our streets today with the reality that this business will always be with us in one form or another.

While MacKay and the Conservative government is right to try to get the victims out of their plight — the minister wants to “off-ramp” them, the police chief wants to “extract” them — the rights of women to safely work in this profession seem to be getting short shrift during the first two days of hearings in Ottawa on the government’s Bill C-36.

It was also a midsummer forum for unsubstantiated statistics and absolute overstatements without support.

Certainly, there is no arguing sex workers — even that term has been shot down as misusing the term “work” — have not been victimized through intimidation, coercion and threats.

Time and again MPs were reminded that no little girl decides to grow up to be a prostitute.

They heard survivors of the sex trade speak of being raped, beaten, held against their will, burned with cigarettes, having guns pulled on them and missing friends who have been killed.

MacKay has anted up $20 million over five years for his off-ramp strategy, a figure even Hanson knows is miserly and would provide a city of Calgary’s size with about $125,000 annually.

“If there is a commitment to deal with this in an adequate way then we have to adequately fund it,” Hanson says. Adequate, says Hanson, is prohibition.

Until this utopian day arrives, women are still working our streets in an inherently dangerous profession who have a Charter right to their safety and security.

Emily Symons of POWER — Prostitutes of Ottawa, Work, Educate and Resist — neatly explained to MPs how C-36, which criminalizes the purchase, but largely not the sale of sex, endangers sex workers in the capital.

Clients fearful of arrest will no longer negotiate in well-lit, populated areas where prostitutes can properly screen them, she said.

Instead, negotiations will be rushed, in darker, empty spaces, will likely reduce the number of clients forcing women into longer hours with less bargaining power to turn down potentially dangerous clients, even push away “safe” known clients who may no longer be comfortable in an area in which they are known.

A smaller pool of clients just means harder, longer, more dangerous hours for women who need to pay the rent and buy groceries.

Under this bill, Symons says, those who want out of the trade have all the human rights, at the expense of those who wish to stay in the trade.

“Imposing morality at the cost of human lives is not acceptable,” said Robyn Maynard of the Montreal-based Stella, l’amie de Maimie.

But that argument is dismissed by Daphne Nissani of Toronto’s Free Them, who argues that johns were always ashamed to show their face and the only difference is that under this bill, they “might drive a little faster.”

The real victory, Nissani said in an interview, is that the Conservatives are changing views on underage, vulnerable girls who have been forced into the sex trade.

Canadians now begin to see them what for what they are — victims, not “whores” or criminals, she says.

Perhaps the greatest disconnect here is the pocket change MacKay is offering to help young victims escape an unchosen life.

One can’t help but wonder where we would be today if more funds had been made available by successive governments on aboriginal education, job training, affordable housing, domestic abuse prevention, drug and alcohol intervention or rape crisis centres.

What if social assistance really did pay the rent and feed the kids?

Would there be as many vulnerable girls and women needing this off-ramp today?

If proper money had been spent previously, $20 million today might have looked a lot better.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.

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