Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay is dismissing criticism of his newly tabled bill on Canada's prostitution laws, saying the changes he's proposing provide a safer environment for sex workers than the alternatives proposed by critics.
MacKay made the comments to the Free Press Tuesday in response to the Winnipeg Working Group speaking out against Bill C-36. The group, made up of sex workers, activists and their allies, said the bill would endanger sex workers.
MacKay said the government consulted with over 30,000 people online. Though he's heard from critics, the WWG among them, that sex work is largely a choice that people take freely, the government's consultations indicate otherwise.
"All of that external evidence suggests that it really isn't a choice, that prostitution is accompanied by violence, by intimidation, by abduction in some cases, and in many cases addiction and blackmail," MacKay said.
Shawna Ferris, founding member and spokeswoman for the WWG, said the issue of whether sex workers choose their work has little to do with the proposed bill.
"Whether or not it's a choice is irrelevant. What's important here is that all of the laws he introduced that would relate to sex work would put people at risk, regardless whether or not they've chosen to work in the industry," Ferris said.
Two major points of contention in the bill for Ferris and the WWG were changes that would make it illegal to advertise sex work in print or online and illegal to communicate for the purpose of sex work in public where a child could reasonably be expected to be present. Those changes, Ferris said, make it hard for sex workers to do their work safely.
"The fact is one of the best ways to get people off of the streets is to decriminalize sex work so that people can work from their homes or small co-ops," she said. "The two changes combined make that hard because to work from home a sex worker would have to advertise.
"It displaces them into darker areas where they are vulnerable to attack."
MacKay said the changes were not made to put sex workers in danger, but rather to target pimps and johns in order to make it more difficult to exploit prostitutes and also to protect families.
"That will inevitably be interpreted by the courts... but this is striking the balance between ensuring that the public expectation, and I'm sure that includes most particularly parents, have the expectation that their children won't be exposed to prostitution," he said.
In her criticism of Bill C-36, Ferris argued only the complete decriminalization of sex work would work for her. MacKay said he's seen arguments for decriminalization of sex work, but pointed towards studies that showed an increase in human trafficking in countries that had such a model.
He added aside from the changes in law, the government is also contributing to efforts to get prostitutes off the street
"It's not just about passing criminal law, it's about putting additional resources, $20 million in fact, to help give prostitutes better choices, better career options and frankly a better life," he said.
Ferris said while the money is nice, it isn't enough to make a substantial change.
"Exit programs are great. If people want out of sex work, they should definitely be able to get out of (it). But the fact of the matter is $20 million is not even a drop in a barrel in terms of the kind of front-line services that are needed," she said.
MacKay said he wanted to stress the point that the tabled bill was about balance between helping sex workers and protecting the public.
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