Issues that affect vulnerable Canadians largely ignored this election

As we approach the end of a federal election campaign unprecedented in length and breadth, discussion on issues that impact the most marginalized and vulnerable Canadians has remained disconcertingly absent. Even more troubling is that these same people are increasingly disenfranchised, making the need for public debate on issues that directly impact them all the more urgent.

The last parliamentary session saw the passage of two major pieces of legislation that promise to further displace and endanger the lives of those who are already vulnerable. Both laws were introduced without adequate consultation with the populations they impact, and each deserves to be vigorously debated by Canadians. To date, neither has.

The Conservative government enacted Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), last December, in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s unanimous decision to strike down Criminal Code provisions on prostitution on the grounds they violated sex workers’ rights to security under the Charter. The PCEPA has resulted in sweeping criminalization of the sex industry that targets sex workers, clients, and third parties, and duplicates the harms of the previous laws.

By imposing more criminalization, the PCEPA makes it more difficult for sex workers to use measures that they know will enhance their safety and to access police protection. These laws disproportionately impact sex workers who are women, Indigenous, migrants, transgender, poor, and/or street-involved, along with other particularly marginalized groups – the very groups whose rights to safety and security the Supreme Court intended to protect when it invalidated the old laws.

Throughout the crafting of the legislation, the government failed to meaningfully engage the people most impacted by the new laws – sex workers themselves.

This process was repeated again this spring with Bill C-2, The Respect for Communities Act, which imposes requirements that effectively block the establishment of more supervised injection facilities like Vancouver’s Insite. These facilities provide life-saving health services by giving people who use drugs a place to safely inject the drugs to which they are addicted, under the supervision of a nurse who can intervene if something goes wrong. A large body of evidence has shown that supervised injection facilities prevent death by overdose and transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Supervised injection services protect the lives of Canadians who are entrenched in poverty, and for some of our neighbours here in the Downtown Eastside, Insite is the only accessible health care facility they ever visit.

Senate Committee hearings on both Bills C-2 and C-36 limited the testimony of drug users and sex workers, instead focusing on testimonies from anti-drug prohibitionists, sex work abolitionists, and others with a tough-on-crime agenda.

Those who have been left out of the political process are further alienated by recent Elections Act changes that will inhibit socially isolated Canadians from voting. Previously people without proper identification or a permanent address – who already faced numerous barriers to voting – could have someone vouch for their identity and residency. This was a way for services providers and family members to assist others to vote. Not only does the new law require two pieces of ID; new requirements for vouching (signing a written oath of residence) also mean the person taking the oath can only vouch for a single person – where previously they could vouch for many.

This disenfranchisement entrenches the social and political isolation experienced by many vulnerable people, whose right to vote has been limited and who have been excluded from providing input to legislation that directly impacts them.

Aside from the Conservatives, all the major federal parties have made promises to repeal the laws brought into effect under the PCEPA. They also opposed Bill C-2, and have promised to replace it with laws grounded in scientific evidence that demonstrates the inefficacy of criminalization. Still, drug policy, sex work, and other urgent human rights issues such mandatory minimums for minor drug offences and the lack of a national strategy for housing our homeless have been largely avoided in the mainstream political dialogue.

Every voice matters. Increasingly, a minority of our adult population elects our lawmakers. We must do better at engaging all Canadians in the democratic process, lest we lose the right to call it that.

Brenda Belak and Adrienne Smith are lawyers with Pivot Legal Society.

Photo courtesy flickr/dennissylvesterhurd