Expect to see more missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and across the country.
Today, the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights will hear submissions from Pivot Legal Society on Bill C-36, the Protection Of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. You can watch here beginning at 12:30PST/15:30EST.
Last week Pivot Litigation Director Katrina Pacey wrote a letter, published in The Hill Times, to Justice Minister Peter MacKay explaining how the proposed laws will continue to put the lives of sex workers at risk.
I feel compelled to write about Bill C-36, Canada’s proposed prostitution laws. I met Justice Minister Peter MacKay in early March at a meeting where I urged him to consider the harms that criminalization imposes on the most marginalized women in the sex industry. I left that meeting with a strong sense of hope and the impression that he is a sensible person who understands the magnitude of the decision his government was about to make.
I was shocked and heartbroken when I saw Bill C-36, which targets all people involved in the sex industry—not only clients and third parties, but also sex workers (including street-based sex workers). It is devastating to think about the tragic consequences it will have on a community that I have such a strong connection to. If I have not been sufficiently clear about these harms in the past, I want to make sure I am clear now. The government’s proposed legislation will create the conditions for violence and murder to occur, and it’s enforcement will result in more missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and across the country. I have trouble understanding how Minister MacKay could endorse this approach, given that this is the foreseeable result.
The proposed laws are inconsistent with everything Minister MacKay said he and his government stand for. The scheme goes against the goals he articulated in our meeting, his comments to the media, and the preamble of the legislation itself.
When I began my legal career, I never imagined I would spend more than a decade devoted to this cause. I began my work in the Downtown Eastside in 2001 as an eager law student, drawn to a community where the need for change was palpable. Not only did I not intend to wade into the complex and controversial issue of prostitution, I was reluctant to do so. I suspect Minister MacKay experienced a similar reluctance, but, for different reasons, we now find ourselves deeply involved in this issue with the responsibility to do the right thing.
My commitment to sex workers’ rights arose from my first meetings with street-based sex workers. Violence against sex workers was ravaging the Downtown Eastside community and I suppose I could have clung to the hope that criminalization was effective, and that it would somehow mean that women didn’t have to stand on dark street corners at night. I suppose I could have concluded that violence is an inevitable aspect of prostitution, and that we should not bother working towards safety for those involved. But these ideas are naïve and inconsistent with what sex workers say and what the global evidence makes clear.
Sex workers (supported by a vast body of evidence) have made a few things abundantly clear. Criminalization of prostitution, in one form or another, has been the predominant approach in Canada and throughout the world for many generations, but has not achieved its goal of decreasing or eliminating prostitution. Instead, criminalization has created the conditions for violence to take place. As a result of Canada’s laws, sex workers have few options but to work in dangerous circumstances where they have little control over the conditions of their work. If given control, they can be safe, healthy, respected, and empowered. In a safe and decriminalized work environment, sex workers will be able to make the choices that are best for them. Their choices should be respected.
As a fellow member of the legal profession, as a Canadian, and as someone who shares the government’s stated commitment to preventing victimization in the sex industry, I felt it necessary to express my profound concern about the legislation that Minister MacKay has proposed and request that the government seriously reconsider Bill C-36. The Minister has the power to move Canada towards a legal and social framework that will not repeat the mistakes of the past. I urge him to take steps to ensure that all members of Canadian society—including the women and men in the sex industry—enjoy the full protection of the law.