Justice Committee on Bill C-36 ignored sex workers

On July 8, I made a brief presentation to the Justice Committee hearings on Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. The bill is the government of Canada’s response to the historic Supreme Court decision last December that struck down the three most harmful laws governing prostitution in Canada. 

I co-presented with Elin Sigurdson, a lawyer who has been involved with Pivot’s sex worker rights campaign for more than 10 years. Chris Bruckert, a University of Ottawa professor who has researched the sex trade for many years, was on our panel as well.

From the very first day, current and former sex workers and others who spoke out against Bill C-36 have been dismissed, ridiculed, subjected to hostile questioning, and heckled in what should be called the “Shame and Loathing Hearings.” On our panel, Chris Bruckert spoke first from her recent research on third parties in the sex industry—drivers, managers, receptionists, and others. While she was speaking, Elin and I watched the Conservative members as they typed on their Blackberries and gossiped amongst themselves. They behaved in exactly the same way when I read my statement to them.

In my statement, I explained that I am a former sex worker who worked in circumstances of profound addiction, poverty, and occasional homelessness, and that I have worked with hundreds of women in similar circumstances. My voice, and those of other current and sex workers who appeared, should have been prioritized as we have direct experience and expertise to share with the committee about how Bill C-36 will affect sex workers.

Yet not a single question was asked of me.

When my colleague Elin tried to defer a question that was more appropriate for someone with experience in sex work to answer, Conservative MP Stella Ambler looked me in the eyes and said, “We don’t have time for that.”

Those appearing before the committee to speak against Bill C-36 were out-numbered approximately two-to-one by those who support the bill. A full quarter of the witnesses were members of the evangelical community. For a country that is as diverse as Canada, with a long history of respecting a variety of religious and spiritual beliefs as well as respecting individuals who are agnostic or atheist, it is disturbing that one set of religious beliefs were given priority over all others. Furthermore, I question the value of permitting religious- and morality-based arguments when it comes to gathering information on the effects of criminal law in Canada.

Anti-prostitution campaigners, along with victims of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children and youth in commercial sex, told disturbing stories of violence and abuse. The tactic of conflating sex work with these human rights abuses is intended to convince Canadians that all sex work is exploitation and all sex workers are victims in need of rescue. It’s a very deliberate distraction from the issue at hand—Canada has good laws prohibiting human trafficking and sexual exploitation and none of these laws were challenged in Bedford v Canada.

Current and former sex workers who do not identify as victims were subjected to intense questioning—during the few times the committee addressed them at all—designed to undermine their testimony. These were witnesses describing the violence and exploitation they had personally experienced as a result of the criminalization of their work, but who wanted to explain why the criminal laws proposed wouldn’t help improve the safety of sex workers. Committee members were dismissive, and our experiences were met by heckles and cries of “Shame!” from anti-prostitution campaigners in the gallery. By contrast, those who support the bill were lauded for their courage in coming forward.

Lawyers and academics who testified against Bill C-36 were treated with disrespect as well, but my colleague Elin, fierce little Viking that she is, had no trouble fielding an intense and patronizing interrogation by members of the Conservative party. Remarkable Canadian academics such as Chris Bruckert and Chris Atchinson, who have researched the sex industry in Canada for many years, were regarded as people who are trying to “make it easier for pimps and johns to operate openly in communities across Canada,” rather than as academics providing their evidence-based comments to the committee about the dangerous effects of the bill. 

Sex workers and our allies feel a bit battered and bruised by our experience during those intense four days of hearings, but we are a close bunch and messages of love and support have been flying across Canada. 

We remain unbroken and the fight for the rights of sex workers is far from over.

Kerry Porth is the Board Chair at Pivot Legal Society