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Controversy surrounds Bill C-36 debate

Prostitution and the laws surrounding it have always been a source of controversy, and the Canadian government’s new bill cracking down on the practice is no exception to the rule. So it’s not surprising a keynote forum in Vancouver on September 17 leaned strongly in one direction.

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By Vanessa Broadbent (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: September 24, 2014

A former sex worker from New Zealand, among other activists, spoke against a new prostitution bill. (Image: Rob Gross / Flickr)

A former sex worker from New Zealand, among other activists, spoke against a new prostitution bill. (Image: Rob Gross / Flickr)

Prostitution and the laws surrounding it have always been a source of controversy, and the Canadian government’s new bill cracking down on the practice is no exception to the rule. So it’s not surprising a keynote forum in Vancouver on September 17 leaned strongly in one direction.

The event was kicked off by Kerry Porth from the PIVOT Legal Society, who was critical in her assessment of the bill, calling it an “insane and misguided attempt to abolish prostitution altogether.”

One of the forum’s featured speakers, Catherine Healy, spoke about her experiences as a former sex worker turned activist fighting for the legalization of sex work in New Zealand.

She was followed by a local activist for abortion rights and sex work, Joyce Arthur. Arthur’s opinion on the bill was consistent with her fellow speakers’.

“The premise of Bill C-36 is rooted in the same old sexist, patriarchal, conditional beliefs that we’ve been fighting for centuries,” Arthur said. “It’s not only impossible to abolish [sex work and abortion]; it’s dangerous and unjust … Criminalization removes women from the law and from health care services. When sex work is criminalized, women die.”

In an article published by CBC News, Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay argued that the law aids sex workers seeking health care or help from police. He also emphasized the intent of the bill to convict others involved in sex work rather than sex workers themselves.

“Prostitution is now de facto illegal, but the emphasis and the focus is on the purchaser and the perpetrator — the pimps who are attempting to exploit and gain materially from prostitution itself,” MacKay said.

Janine Benedet, a law professor at UBC who testified on the bill, told the Ubyssey she felt that Bill C-36, while not perfect, is an improvement on old legislation.

“For the first time, we have a provision that says it’s an act of exploitation to buy another human being for sex and you should stop because ultimately, you’re fuelling inequality and exploitation and trafficking,” she explained.

The bill still needs to be passed in the House of Commons before it is made official, and the intent of the forum in Vancouver was to send a message to the federal government, Arthur told the Valley Voice before the event.

“The experience of New Zealand that Catherine will speak about should send a strong message to Ottawa that there is a proven, better way to protect both communities and sex workers from harm,” Arthur said.

With files from Katie Stobbart.

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