Time to Review Canada’s Solicitation Laws

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): I would like to thank my colleague, the member for Burnaby-Douglas, for seconding the motion today. I am pleased to rise in the House today to debate this motion and to hear what other parties have to say. My motion seeks: That a special committee of the House be appointed to review the solicitation laws in order to improve the safety of sex-trade workers and communities overall, and to recommend changes that will reduce the exploitation and violence against sex-trade workers.

I became concerned about this issue as a result of the situation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where, as I am sure Members are aware, a terrible tragedy has been unfolding. As of now 63 women, all of whom were involved in the sex trade, have gone missing and many of them, if not all of them, may have been murdered. We now have the largest serial murder case in Canada’s history unfolding in Port Coquitlam as a result of the 15 murder charges that have been laid. While that investigation has been going on, I have been working in the Downtown Eastside with local organizations that provide services and interventions with regard to street prostitution. There are many questions about this horrific situation of missing women in Vancouver. There are many serious questions about the police investigations and why it took so long for a special task force to be put together to investigate the disappearance of these women. I think many of us wonder, had these women not been sex trade workers or prostitutes, whether the investigation would have been treated differently, at a much earlier date and with a much more urgent priority.

While media attention is focused on the murder investigation that is taking place, many organizations and individuals in the Downtown Eastside are pointing to the urgency of the situation still facing women who are at risk on a daily and nightly basis in the community.

It was because of some of the underlying issues around the role the Criminal Code plays in the laws pertaining to solicitation, around policing issues and around the marginalization and criminalization of sex trade workers that I brought forward the motion. I believe we need a review of the federal laws pertaining to solicitation that put so many of these women on the street at risk. It is important that we not only try to improve their safety and reduce violence and exploitation but that we also try to improve safety overall in the community.

Some members of the House who have been around for a long time will remember that in 1985 the Fraser commission did a thorough review of Canada’s laws pertaining to solicitation and the sex trade. Hearings were held across Canada. What came out of the Fraser commission was a change in the law that dealt with communicating for the purposes of soliciting. The review of that law has shown that since 1985 there has been no substantial change from the point of view of either increasing safety or law and order in local communities. Also, there has been no improvement in the marginalization and stigmatization faced by women who are involved in the sex trade. This becomes another reason we need to have a review of the federal laws as they are today. We have a very contradictory view about prostitution. When it is off street, out of the public eye and invisible there is a high level of tolerance. However when it comes to street prostitution the main instrument still being used is a law enforcement approach. We need to have a community discussion involving sex trade workers themselves. We need to know the daily risks they face and what needs to be done, either through law reform, law enforcement, social services support or intervention services counselling, to help women exit the sex trade.

John Lowman, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, has studied this issue and released a major paper in 1998 on prostitution and law reform in Canada. He makes the point the Criminal Code is hypocritical and tolerates off street prostitution but that when it comes to street prostitution we are still involved in enforcement that criminalizes women and causes all kinds of difficulties.

One group in my community, PACE, Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education, has done research that has involved taking surveys among sex trade workers to find out what their issues and concerns are. While this information is available in the local community there has been no way to collect this information and bring it together in a way that Members of Parliament can debate it. Recently I met with the Minister of Justice about the missing women in the Downtown Eastside and I found the Minister to be very sympathetic. There has been a working group on prostitution at a federal-provincial-territorial level. It reported a couple of years ago, but again, while some of that work is interesting and useful and also focuses on the issues of safety and violence, none of it has become public. There has been no public forum through which these issues can be debated.

When people involved in the sex trade become the subject of law enforcement under the Criminal Code and are charged or convicted, they basically end up in a revolving door situation. Then it becomes very difficult to exit the sex trade, because they become stigmatized and very marginalized. The Vancouver Injection Drug User Study, which specifically looked at the increase of HIV-AIDS in women, found that about 75% of study respondents were women involved in the sex trade. There are no 24-hour safe houses. There is no 24-hour counselling available. Most of the groups dealing with this issue are completely stretched for resources. They are operating with volunteers. They are operating in places where they are not even sure if they have security. There are not even the services that should be there to help women exit the sex trade. The services are not even available if they want to make that decision.

To me, this debate is about looking for ways to reduce the harm of what is taking place in these communities. It is about understanding what the impact of the law has been. It is about recognizing that we do have contradictions in the way we view prostitution, whether it is on street or off street. It is about having an honest and frank debate about what we can do to look at law reform and to look what other countries have done. Even the communicating law is creating a hazard for people involved in the sex trade.

I very much look forward to the debate that will take place today and I hope that the government representative who will be speaking will recognize that there is a problem. I think we have to focus on what it is that we are going to do to resolve this problem. I really think we would do a disservice to this issue if we were to continue with task force reports that are behind closed doors and at a bureaucratic level. I really believe that this should be an issue that involves Members of the House, through a committee. I very much hope that the government would concur with that position and at least allow the debate to happen without prejudging the outcome. Mr. Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to speak at the opening of this debate and I look forward to comments from my colleagues.

Mr. Paul Harold Macklin (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Liberal.): It is no secret that public concerns in the area of prostitution-related activities are growing with respect to the safety of the prostitutes and the harm caused to communities. It should also be noted that careful consideration of prostitution-related criminal law issues is important and is consistent with the government’s commitment to vulnerable people, children included, and their protection.

I want to stress that the intent of the motion is admirable in that it tries to find a way to help a group of vulnerable persons and communities in our society that have consistently been marginalized, as the previous speaker indicated. However, I cannot emphasize enough that prostitution is a complex and multi-faceted problem. It must be addressed on many fronts, including legislative reform, community support, social interventions and other related issues.

In addition, the various impacts of prostitution on sex trade workers and on communities must be addressed in collaboration with a wide variety of partners, including other federal departments and agencies, provincial and territorial governments, particularly their departments responsible for dealing with justice-related issues and those responsible for social services and child welfare issues, and last but not least, municipal governments across the country.

Having said that, I wonder whether a special committee would be the best vehicle to elicit the collaboration of all these partners that must be involved in any attempt to address these issues. Clearly the cooperation of all these partners would be necessary to properly and usefully address all facets of prostitution-related issues.

Mr. James Moore (Port Moody-Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Canadian Alliance): This is an issue that requires action. All the motion asks for is for the House to study possible action. We cannot get the government to even consider doing that. On the motion the Canadian Alliance will, as usual, have a free vote. I will be voting in favour of the motion. In my view, any changes or alterations to Canada’s laws with regard to solicitation and prostitution must have as their first goal the intent of getting women out of prostitution

Mr. Réal Ménard (Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Bloc Québécois): Mr. Speaker, I too would like to congratulate our colleague on this motion and to inform her that I intend to get busy within my caucus to gain support for it. I trust that, if ever this House did not give its consent for the striking of a special committee, this motion would at the very least be referred to another committee. I think there might be a number of concrete advantages to having a special committee.

Citizens have rights, including the right to live in peace in their community, without being exposed to scenes that should not take place in public places. At the same time, prostitution exists and we must find new, innovative and responsible ways to deal with sex-trade workers, while also being respectful of their rights. This is why we should discuss the issue, listen to people and work seriously on this in a parliamentary committee.

Mr. Peter MacKay (Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough, Progressive Conservative): Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to take part in this very important debate here in the House. I congratulate my colleague for having shared with us her point of view on this subject of concern to us all.

Striking a special committee with a mandate to investigate the issue is in line with the Progressive Conservative Party’s position and it would lead to substantive changes in a way that we could deal with the problem. Getting together stakeholders, interested persons and those with specific insights, like the member from Vancouver, can only help us in dealing with this compelling and troubling issue. Nearly all the assaults and murders that occur while a prostitute is at work is a very troubling issue.

When considering how to deal with legislation regarding prostitution, particularly under section 213 of the Criminal Code, we must be cognizant that the potential for increased violence against prostitutes truly exists. I was disappointed and taken aback at the position taken by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice. The self-congratulatory tone in talking about what has already been done has not resulted in the desired effects that we are looking for and wrestling with. The issue is one of action. The government could and should do more on this file.