BRANDON -- It is a story that again proves the need to drastically change the manner in which Canada addresses its prostitution problem.
A Winnipeg courtroom was told recently a teenage girl was repeatedly injected with crystal meth by a man to keep her awake and working for days at a time for an escort service being run out of rooms in two city hotels.
Arrests were made after the girl required hospital treatment for a wound caused by the drug injections, which had dangerously festered as she continued to turn "dozens and dozens and dozens" of tricks for clients supplied by her employers.
Robert Gow, 29, pleaded guilty to living off the avails of prostitution last week and was sentenced to two years in jail. His co-accused, Andre Collins Mitchell, 42, faces several prostitution-related charges, including keeping a common bawdy house. He is presumed innocent.
The facts of this case are disturbing, but they are far from unusual. Numerous studies and reports have shown Canada's sex-trade industry relies upon the exploitation of vulnerable people, many of them children, who are recruited, lured or kidnapped into a life of horror that often ends violently.
Hoping to change that reality, the federal government is expected to soon introduce amendments to the Criminal Code that will revamp the current law, by targeting pimps and johns but exempting prostitutes from prosecution. It is the approach advocated by Winnipeg MP Joy Smith, who deserves credit for her tireless work against human trafficking and exploitation.
While the amendments will signal an important change in attitude toward prostitution, it is unrealistic to expect that tougher criminal penalties will be the magic bullet that kills Canada's sex-trade industry. Indeed, soliciting prostitution, keeping a bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution have been crimes for many decades and prostitution is still a thriving industry.
A different approach to the problem is needed. If prostitution is to be eradicated, it must also be fought at the provincial level. Provincial laws move faster, have fewer procedural impediments, and could pose a far more immediate threat to the sex-trade industry if properly deployed.
In Manitoba, the Criminal Property Forfeiture Act has been used to seize and sell properties used for marijuana grow-ops, child molestation, and by the Hells Angels. The law should be used to seize and sell the cars and computers used by johns (and janes) to arrange their "dates," everything a pimp uses to run his or her business and everything purchased with the profits.
Hotels almost always emerge unscathed from these stories, but it is impossible to believe a hotel's staff or management doesn't notice the "dozens and dozens and dozens" of johns going to the same room at all hours of the day and night and doesn't suspect what is happening.
If the province starts seizing and selling hotels and apartment buildings where prostitution is occurring, hotel owners and apartment landlords will be less likely to turn a blind eye and more likely to call the cops.
The proceeds from the sale of the seized property could fund programs to help prostitutes exit the sex trade.
The province can also use liquor and gaming laws to revoke a hotel's liquor and VLT licences -- the sources of revenue that keep most hotels afloat. If hotels must choose between tolerating prostitution on their premises and VLT and booze profits, the choice will be obvious.
Given the myriad health dangers associated with prostitution, provincial and municipal health laws should also be used to shut down buildings that have hosted the activity. The public must be protected from hotel rooms and mattresses that have been used for marathon prostitution.
We need to stop regarding prostitution as an issue that can only be addressed by Ottawa with tougher criminal laws. A more co-ordinated approach, using existing provincial laws, could go a long way to reducing the problem.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon