Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in the third reading debate on Bill C-36, the protection of communities and exploited persons act.
Bill C-36 is the government's response to the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in December 2013 in the Bedford case, a decision that will result in the decriminalization of most adult prostitution related activities if this bill is not enforced before expiry of the court's one-year suspension, on December 20 of this year.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights studied the bill in July 2014 and a Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs pre-studied it in early September. Both committees heard from many witnesses, reflecting a wide range of views. That evidence also included consideration of the available research evaluating different approaches to prostitution taken in different jurisdictions.
The government has always maintained that failing to respond to the Bedford decision is not an option and that the testimony before these two committees reaffirms this position.
At committee, the Hon. Andrew Swan, minister of justice and attorney general for the Government of Manitoba, stated the following:
The Manitoba government does not support the legalization of prostitution, it does not support the full decriminalization of prostitution or a de facto decriminalization of prostitution, which would occur if there was no response to the Bedford decision. All those options would continue to allow the purchase of others for sex, devalue human life, and enable tragedies associated with prostitution to continue to occur.
I acknowledge that there are some individuals who will say that they have freely chosen to sell their sexual services. The two committees heard from some witnesses who wanted the law to recognize a profession that they called “sex work”, who wanted the law to help them earn a living selling their own sexual services. They wanted the law to allow them to run commercial enterprises in which sexual services would be sold so they could capitalize on the prostitution of others.
These witnesses told the committees that existing laws prohibiting assault, sexual assault, forceable confinement and human trafficking provided them with sufficient protection and that they were not victims, that they freely chose what they referred to as “sex work” and that the state had no right to tell them that they could not earn a living doing what they chose to do.
Conversely, so many of the witnesses who appeared before the two committees spoke of their tragic stories of pain, suffering and victimization, stories of johns who had abused and degraded them for their own sexual pleasure and pimps who had harmed and exploited them to maximize their own profits.
These stories are also supported by statistics that clearly show that prostitution targets the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the vulnerable, including those who suffer disadvantages because of gender, poverty, race, youth and a history of abuse for addiction. We do not accept that this group should have to wait until a violent offence is committed against them to avail themselves of the law's protection. Make no mistake about it, Bill C-36 is for them.
Even if in some cases prostitution involves some who identify themselves as consenting adults, that does not detract from the validity of Bill C-36 objectives. Some times it is necessary to prohibit conduct that produces harm or risk of harm to individuals or society, even if not in every case. The courts have recognized that the liberty of some to engage in certain conduct can be constrained to protect others who are vulnerable to the harms associated with that conduct. This includes polygamy, incest, possession and trafficking of drugs and the trade in human organs and tissues. These are practices that so often involve a power imbalance between the participants. That imbalance often results in the more powerful party taking advantage of the less powerful party.
The criminal law has an important role to play in protecting the less powerful and the vulnerable. Even if in some cases a power imbalance is not present, the elevated risk that the vulnerable could be targeted, that the vulnerable could suffer if the activity is allowed to persist, warrants prohibition of the activity itself because harm results to everyone when a practice that targets the vulnerable is allowed to flourish.
Prostitution is a case in point. We know that women are disproportionately and negatively impacted by prostitution. We know that indicators of socio-economic disadvantage are risk factors for entry into and remaining subjected to prostitution. We know that involvement in prostitution results in the experience of high levels of violence, both physical and sexual, and emotional trauma, regardless of venue or legal regime. The individual and societal risks of validating this activity are simply too high.
Simply put, we cannot condone this so-called industry for the benefit of those individuals who claim to freely choose it, because doing so would exacerbate the harm experienced by that vulnerable group who are most at risk of subjection to prostitution, and importantly, do not choose it. Facilitating this industry would also harm communities, including through proliferation of associated criminality such as drug-related offences and human trafficking, as well as society at large by reinforcing gender inequalities and normalizing the treatment of primarily women's bodies as bought and sold.
Make no mistake, this is not a business like any other. It is not an industry like any other, or work like any other. It is exploitation of our most vulnerable and our law must say no, this is not acceptable. If that means that some who would like to profit from the trade in sexual services can no longer do so, then that result is necessary to prevent the ongoing and future victimization of others.
I have focused thus far on the vulnerability of so many of those who sell their own sexual services, but what about those who purchase those same services? Some have asked why Bill C-36 would label this group “exploiters” when some are not.
We must take into account a variety of societal factors when determining whether the criminal law should apply to certain conduct, including when that conduct can be engaged in consensually. If allowing that conduct results in a reasonable apprehension of harm to some, particularly the vulnerable, the application of the criminal law is justified.
Bill C-36 recognizes that the act of purchasing sexual services, regardless of the circumstances, contributes to a serious societal problem that implicates the equality of rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups. That practice must be stopped to protect the dignity and equality of those vulnerable groups and indeed every member of our society. This approach reflects one of the fundamental roles of criminal law, which is to protect the vulnerable.
These are the reasons Bill C-36 proposes a fundamental paradigm shift toward treatment of prostitution as sexual exploitation. These are the reasons Bill C-36 proposes to continue to criminalize those who capitalize upon the exploitation of the prostitution of others. These are the reasons Bill C-36 proposes to criminalize those who fuel the demand for prostitution.
I would like to recap. The important objectives of Bill C-36 are to reduce the incidence of prostitution, a practice that targets the vulnerable; to discourage entry into it; to deter participation in it; and ultimately, to abolish it to the greatest extent possible.
For the first time in Canadian criminal law, Bill C-36 would make the purchase of sexual services a criminal offence. Although the sale of sexual services would not be prohibited, criminalizing the demand for sexual services in fact makes prostitution an illegal activity.
Some have said that an approach involving asymmetrical criminalization of a consensual activity is unprecedented, but the purchasing offence is almost identical to the existing offence that prohibits the purchase of sexual services from minors. That offence has been on the books for years and is the basis for widespread agreement on the fact that our existing law makes child prostitution illegal.
Here we see the very same power imbalance to which I have already alluded, and Bill C-36 recognizes that this power imbalance does not cease to exist simply when a person turns 18 years old. The law also treats sexual activity with minors asymmetrically. The consent of persons under the age of 16 to such activity is not valid. In several instances, the criminal law applies asymmetrically to ensure that the person who has less power, who is considered to be vulnerable, is not held criminally liable for engaging in illegal activities.
I come to the critical question that seems to have caused a great deal of confusion. How does Bill C-36 make prostitution illegal?
The Supreme Court of Canada has defined prostitution as the exchange of sexual services of one person in return for payment by another. Criminalizing the purchase of sexual services invalidates the entire prostitution transaction.
This is no different from the criminal law's approach to child prostitution, and research shows that there is good reason to treat child prostitution and adult prostitution as activities that exist along the same continuum rather than separate activities, warranting suppression in one case and facilitation in the other. In far too many cases, there is no practical difference in warranting differential treatment by the law.
Professor Benedet's testimony before the Senate committee drives this point home. Although long, I would like to quote her fully.
It is a crime to buy a young person for sex, and no one seems to be disputing the continued existence of that provision or questioning its constitutionality. No one is going to come to you and ask you to repeal that provision because it makes kids unsafe by pushing prostitution underground, even though exactly the same argument ought to apply.
The reason they will not argue it is that it is generally accepted that buying a young person is exploitation because of the inequality of power based on age, even if the kid says yes.
She goes on to say:
Of course, there are usually many other inequalities at work, including some combination of gender, colonialism, poverty and addiction. Yet, when the inequality of age is no longer present, people refuse to see any of the other inequalities that are so prevalent in the prostitution industry, even when that prostitute, now an adult, started as a child, which was true of many of the witnesses in the Bedford case.
I submit that it is time to stop ignoring those inequalities and that Bill C-36 does something very important in recognizing that there are other inequalities beyond age that make the prostitution industry exploitative and worthy of the criminal law's attention.
That is the end of the quote.
As I have said, Bill C-36 does not propose to criminalize the sale of sexual services, instead it proposes to immunize sellers from prosecution for the part they play in the illegal prostitution transaction.
This immunity does not, however, make that transaction legal. The approach does not in any way allow, authorize, facilitate or condone the selling of sexual services. Rather, it recognizes the power imbalance that so often manifests itself in this transaction.
The solution is to assist, not punish, the less powerful party to that transaction. I stress that so many sellers, some who courageously appeared before the two committees, rarely freely choose prostitution. For many, their choices were constrained, whether by the brute force of those who would profit from their exploitation or by the lack of meaningful options from which to choose.
This is the reason the bill proposes to immunize them from prosecution for the part that they play in the illegal prostitution transaction.
It is also why the government has dedicated $20 million in addition to other existing federal initiatives to assist sellers in leaving prostitution. Protecting those who are so vulnerable to the dangers and risks posed by prostitution involve preventing entry into it, helping those involved leave it, and directing the full force of the criminal law at those who fuel this trade, as well as those who capitalize on it.
I want to read to the House the words of a very courageous woman who appeared before the House of Commons justice committee in July this year. Her name is Bridget Perrier and I have to say that I was moved by her testimony. I think all who hear it will be equally moved. I want people to hear this. I think it is important that my colleagues here in the House hear it and that Canadians across the country hear it. She said:
I was lured and debased into prostitution at the age of 12 from a child welfare-run group home. I remained enslaved for 10 years in prostitution. I was sold to men who felt privileged to steal my innocence and invade my body. I was paraded like cattle in front of men who were able to purchase me, and the acts that I did were something no little girl should ever have to endure here in Canada, the land of the free.
Because of the men, I cannot have a child normally, because of trauma towards my cervix. Also, still to this day I have nightmares, and sometimes I sleep with the lights on. My trauma is deep, and I sometimes feel as though I'm frozen—or even worse, I feel damaged and not worthy.
I was traded in legal establishments, street corners, and strip clubs. I even had a few trips across the Great Lakes servicing shipmen at the age of 13. The scariest thing that happened to me was being held captive for a period of 43 hours and raped and tortured repeatedly at 14 years of age by a sexual predator who preyed on exploited girls.
My exploiters made a lot of money and tried to break me, but I fought for my life. My first pimp was a woman who owned a legal brothel, where I was groomed to say that I was her daughter's friend, if the police ever asked. My second pimp was introduced to me when I was in Toronto. I had to prostitute for money. He was supposed to be a bodyguard, but that turned out to be one big lie.
Both are out there still, doing the same thing to more little girls somewhere here in Canada.
In my view, if there is one more little girl like Bridget Perrier anywhere in Canada, we need to do something about it. We cannot stand idly by.
The Supreme Court said it is for us as parliamentarians to do something about this. It is within our jurisdiction to do something about this. She did not talk about legalizing brothels and bringing in municipal bylaws to regulate their hours of operation. She talked about using the laws for which Parliament is responsible, the criminal laws, to bring in a new way of responding to what is a horrible practice in our country.
We must aspire to a society free from the exploitive practices that target our most vulnerable members, a society that prioritizes dignity and equality of all. For Bridget Perrier, for Timea Nagy, for Katarina MacLeod, and for the dozens and hundreds of others out there, we must do this.
I hope my colleagues on the other side of the House, especially the Liberals, who do not seem to be able to make up their minds, will choose to support Bill C-36. Do the right thing and recognize the women who are trapped in this business as victims and help them to bring an end to this awful practice that has enslaved far too many in our society.