‘The way you tell it, frankly, it sounds like … a TV sitcom about happy hookers’
After sitting through more than 16 hours of often heart-wrenching witness testimony, Conservative MPs voted to make just one substantive change Tuesday to Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s bid to rewrite Canada’s prostitution laws, by narrowing the proposed blanket ban on “public communications” related to sex work to apply only to areas near playgrounds, schoolyards and daycare centres.
The change addresses some of the loudest criticism of the bill, but it is an outcome that will almost certainly disappoint the many witnesses who had pleaded with the committee to remove any threat of criminal charges against sex workers.
And it likely won’t come as a surprise to those who found themselves facing a distinctly chilly reception from the Conservative contingent on committee.
Just moments after the final round of hearings had wrapped up Thursday, Conservative MP Stella Ambler — who is not a permanent committee member but sat in on the hearings for caucus colleague Kyle Seeback — issued a statement attacking “Trudeau Liberal” and NDP members for attempting to “undermine” the government’s bill, and “make it easier for johns and pimps to operate openly in communities across Canada.”
Ambler was particularly perturbed by the Liberals and NDP submitting the names of two witnesses that, she argued, had no business sharing their views on the proposed legislation: University of Victoria researcher Chris Atchison and the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada.
“This is the same Adult Entertainment Association of Canada that, when our government shut down their access to vulnerable overseas women, launched a campaign to recruit 18-year-old high school girls to work in their clubs,” Ambler said in her statement.
As for Atchison, described in Ambler’s release as a “sociologist”: “[He] believes that ‘victimization is a two-way street,’ and that men who exploit vulnerable prostitutes (who he calls members of the ‘sex-buying community’) need to be ‘understood’ and treated in a ‘non-judgmental’ way,” Ambler wrote.
At no point during the appearances of either Atchison or Adult Entertainment Industry Association president Tim Lambrinos did Ambler — or any other Conservative MP — challenge their participation in the process, or confront either witness directly about the claims made in her release.
Sex workers’ personal experience questioned
At times, the proceedings took on the tone of the questioning of hostile witnesses.
Natasha Potvin, a former sex worker who now volunteers with the Victoria-based sex worker support group PEERS, testified on Thursday. In her opening statement, she stressed that the 15 years she spent in the sex trade — from age 21 to 37 — were entirely voluntary.
“It was my choice — a choice I made on behalf of my daughter, and I was proud of it,” she said, adding that it was also her choice to share her story with the committee.
Calling her a victim, she said, “is to ignore and denigrate my reality, and does not take my choice into account.”