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Justice Minister Peter McKay said he expects a legal challenge to Bill C-36.

Bill C-36: protection over exploitation

  • July 8, 2014

OTTAWA - The federal government had a choice with its new prostitution regulations, said Justice Minister Peter McKay: it could “condone the exploitation” of women and children “or protect them.”

The government took the protection route, said McKay.

MacKay led off testimony as dozens of women’s groups, academics and survivors of prostitution lined up to testify before the House of Commons justice committee July 7-10 on Bill C-36, the federal government’s legislative response after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down several of the laws regulating prostitution last December, saying they violated the Charter rights of sex workers. The court had given Parliament a year to come up with new legislation before its judgment would come into effect regarding the existing laws.

Bill C-36 criminalizes the purchase of sex, rather than the sale. It also places restrictions on where sex workers can advertise and solicit clients.

McKay, along with a lawyers’ group that spoke before the committee, believe a legal challenge to Bill C-36 is very likely, though McKay said the government wrote the bill without outside legal opinions as it expects it to pass.

McKay was followed by Justice Department officials in explaining why they believe the bill properly balances a range of constitutional concerns. Donald Piragoff, the senior assistant deputy minister in the Justice Department’s policy section, told the committee Bill C-36 deals specifically with the concerns the Supreme Court found in the existing laws.

Constitutional concerns took up most of the early debate. MacKay faced questions from Opposition MPs on whether he was rushing the bill through. NDP Justice Critic Francoise Boivin asked why he did not refer the legislation to the Supreme Court for an opinion on whether it is constitutional. MacKay said Parliament already had the court’s opinion. 

“Obviously, every new bill could return before the Supreme Court,” he said.

Conservative MP Joy Smith, whose expertise in the area of human trafficking and its link to prostitution played a key role in the drafting of the legislations, said Bill C-36 represents a “huge paradigm shift.” For the first time, legislation recognizes the “plight of the victim” and recognizes prostitution is “a crime against very vulnerable women,” Smith said.

“I think it is an historic moment, and I feel really overwhelmed to be part of it,” said Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre. “It’s really incredible for those of us who have been working to end men’s violence against women to be part of Bill C-36 because it is going to change the lives of women and girls and boys for generations into the future.”

Yet feminists and groups representing prostitutes are divided on the bill. Jean McDonald, executive director of Maggie’s: the Toronto Sex Worker’s Action Project, testified July 7 that women active in the sex trade oppose the bill. She rejected the use of victim terminology. 

“It’s problematic to talk about us as merchandise when we are not.”

McDonald proposed decriminalizing prostitution and “looking at prostitution pragmatically,” and “not based on moral grounds.” 

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