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Marathon prostitution hearings begin Monday

The inside of Canada
The inside of Canada's House of Commons, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
— image credit: Wikimedia Commons (author Sam)

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Political fireworks and gut-wrenching, street-level testimonials are expected to mark this week's marathon round of hearings by the House of Commons justice committee on the Harper government's new prostitution bill.

The government says it is racing to a tight December deadline imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada to create a new law.

NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin says she wants the government to slow down and thoughtfully craft a new, Charter-compliant law over the summer months.

The high court struck down Canada's old prostitution law last December and gave it one year to replace it with one that would comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the government's message this coming week is to pass the bill because there's a sense of urgency.

MacKay will be the first witness on Monday morning at this week's special sitting of the Commons justice committee, which will cram what would easily be a month or more of testimony into just over three days.

It's not entirely unheard of for parliamentary committees to convene during the summer recess. The agenda this week is ambitious, with the committee expected to hear from more than 60 witnesses over 20 hours of hearings set to begin Monday and run until Thursday morning.

"It's going to be an intense week," Boivin said in an interview. "It's like a train going so fast."

Boivin said she will ask for more time for committee members to have a less frenzied consideration of the bill over the summer months, "to see if some suggestions of amendments will be pertinent, and to at least think for just five minutes."

MacKay told reporters this past week that he's open to amending the bill, but he signalled he won't be too indulgent: he said the bill is constitutionally sound and is an adequate response to the Supreme Court.

"Our message is: pass the bill," he said. "There is a sense of urgency."

Conservative committee chair Mike Wallace said the government is feeling the clock ticking towards its deadline and wants to work hard to meet it.

"There was a discussion about asking for an extension from the Supreme Court, but the risk would be they would take their time and say no and it would be too tight a time frame," Wallace said in an interview.

Bob Dechert, the parliamentary secretary to MacKay, said the government wants to hear from a broad range of people affected by the life-and-death realities of the sex trade. And it wants Canadians to hear them too, during the televised proceedings.

"I know that we will hear a lot of stories from survivors of the sex industry, and I've heard some of them, and people will be surprised to learn how brutal a business it is — if you can even call it a business," said Dechert.

The government is also ready to hear plenty of opposition, including one particularly vocal constituency that wants prostitution completely legalized, he added.

Dechert said that while the government is open to amendments, at the end of the day, he believes the current bill "strikes the right balance" in responding to the Supreme Court.

He said Justice Department officials, who advised the government, will be open to questioning by all parties after MacKay has finished his testimony on Monday.

The vast list of those testifying includes sex workers, indigenous women, community workers and experts from Europe.

A Justice Department discussion paper summarizes the three international approaches taken towards prostitution.

There's the "Nordic model" of Sweden, Norway and Iceland, which criminalizes clients and third parties but not prostitutes, accompanied by social programs aimed at helping sex workers.

There's the decriminalization or legalization of Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.

And there's the outright prohibition of both the purchase and sale of sexual services, which is the state of play across the entire United States, with one the notable exception: the state of Nevada.

Prostitution itself was actually legal in Canada under the old law, but most related activities — including communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, pimping and running a brothel — were criminal offences.

The Supreme Court said that amounted to a violation of the basic Charter right to security of the person and was concerned that the provisions unduly increased the risk to sex workers.

The Conservatives' new bill creates new offences for clients and pimps, but does not criminalize prostitutes themselves.

It also cracks down on advertising and selling sexual services in public places where a child could reasonably be expected to be present.

"We believe we have to focus on the demand and reduce the prevalence of it over time," said Dechert.

But he also said the government answered the Supreme Court's core demand — that the personal safety of prostitutes be safeguarded.

He said the new law allows prostitutes to rent apartments, screen clients, hire a receptionist or security guard, and advertise what they are offering.

The government is also pledging $20 million towards helping prostitutes leave the business, and has said it will work with provinces and territories on that.

"This is new territory for Canada," said Dechert. "What we're trying to do is eliminate those who exploit the women."

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