One of Parliament's most high-profile bills appears set to become law without major changes – as one senator says the committee considering Bill C-36, aimed at reining in the sex trade, is "highly unlikely" to call for changes.
The approval of the bill by the Conservative-dominated Senate committee would be a strong signal it will ultimately become law in its current form, despite being broadly criticized, in particular for provisions that could lead a sex worker to be criminally charged. Many lawyers have also warned the bill is likely unconstitutional and could end up being struck down.
(What will be Canada's new prostitution laws? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
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The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee was urged to make certain changes as even supporters of the bill said it should not criminalize sex workers. However, the Conservative government has argued that the bill needs to be passed quickly and that it balances protecting sex workers with discouraging their trade. Asked last week whether the committee would call for any changes to the bill, Conservative Senator and committee member Linda Frum replied simply: "It's highly unlikely."
The committee has been conducting a "pre-study" of Bill C-36 this month, part of a bid to ensure it moves quickly through the Senate once formally passed by the House of Commons. The bill was tabled after the Supreme Court, in its Bedford decision, struck down existing prostitution laws, in part because they were found to violate the Charter rights of sex workers.
During her own appearance before the Senate committee earlier this month, Terri-Jean Bedford threatened senators that she would disclose a list of politicians who buy sex if the bill is passed in its current form. She later ran afoul of committee rules by speaking out of turn, was escorted out of the Senate meeting and ultimately apologized.
The new law largely criminalizes the buyers of sex – rather than the sellers – but will nonetheless have an impact on sex workers. It includes broad restrictions on advertising – sex workers are allowed to place ads but it will be illegal for companies to knowingly run them – a change expected to put a chill on both newspapers and websites.
The law also includes a provision making it illegal to discuss a transaction near a school, playground or daycare – a law that would apply to sex workers and clients alike. That was the provision most frequently criticized by witnesses during committee hearings. The government has already softened this provision through an amendment made by a House of Commons committee.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who is spearheading the bill for the Conservative government, told The Globe and Mail last week that he had not heard from the Senate about any changes. "I have not heard any indication of forthcoming amendments. I have been following it, and following the proceedings. Of course, they're still sitting, they still have opportunities to examine the bill. We'll await that decision," he said.
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan has pledged to pass Bill C-36 by December, to meet the court's deadline and ensure Canada doesn't go without laws on prostitution. The government has repeatedly insisted the law is constitutional, but also said it is designed to limit and rein in the sex trade as much as possible.