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Does Bill C-36 really bestow dignity and human rights upon anyone?

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Photo: flickr/Nic Redhead

Last week, witnesses provided testimony on Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Many witnesses applauded the legislative sentiment contained within the preamble. Supporters of the bill argued that it represented a progressive, paradigm shift that made respect for human dignity an integral objective.

The specific passage states that "it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution."

By conflating human dignity with the discouragement of sex work, the government is implying that it is only by exiting the industry that a sex worker can attain self-worth. Not only is this a paternalistic ideal, but it is also Hobbesian in nature as it implies that the "public worth of a man...is the value set on him by the Commonwealth."

Despite the preamble, Bill C-36 sets forth a regressive conception of human dignity that is in direct opposition with the accepted view that dignity is intrinsic.

Although dignity is a natural human right, modern discourse advances the idea that rights also confer responsibility. According to Michael Rosen's seminal work, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, the framework for human rights has evolved to embody the principle that human beings also have the
"right to be treated with dignity." This broader conception of human rights implies that dignity is not just a declaration, it is also a demonstrative action. In order to test the preamble's respect for human dignity, it is essential to examine the actions of the various stakeholders.

Parliament has a duty to respect the dignity of Canadian society by enacting legislation that reflects Canadian values as well as its constitutional obligations. The gendered language of Bill C-36, propounding that sex work "has a disproportionate impact on women and children," omits both male and transgender sex workers. The exclusion of an entire population of stakeholders makes Bill C-36 factually inaccurate and compounds the criticism that the proposed legislation is based upon skewed scientific data.

With respect to constitutionality, the government has a responsibility to reflect the spirit of the Bedford decision. Instead, the government has abrogated its duty to protect Canadians from foreseeable risk by proposing legislation that will recreate the same harms that gave rise to the Bedford challenge. In its attempt to protect human dignity, Bill C-36 will have drastic consequences to those currently involved in the sex industry.

The concerns of law enforcement with respect to Bill C-36 must be balanced with the duty to uphold the dignity of Canadians. Out of all of the proponents of the bill, it was only the police that saw the need for the added criminalization provisions against sex workers. Several law enforcement representatives argued that it was an effective tool to open a dialogue with a potential "victim."

However, it was the spectre of Robert Pickton during the committee meeting that reminded us that law enforcement failed to employ all of its current legislative powers to protect society's most vulnerable. Thus, it was not a lack of legislative tools that exacerbated the tragedy in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside; instead, it was the underpinning of racial and socio-economic prejudice that resulted in police inaction.

With respect to pro-sex work and anti-sex work organizations, the side that an individual sex worker supports seems to be determined by whether one has had a positive or a negative experience in the industry. Given that sex work is a complex issue, sex workers and former sex workers are the most knowledgeable people to draw upon for insight to create a sensible approach to the issue.

This wealth of experience is being overlooked by an adversarial process, thus compromising the legitimate safety concerns of current sex workers. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with sex work, a sex worker's intrinsic dignity accords them the right to personal security and harm reduction.

Additionally, the economic imperatives that give rise to the necessity of sex work, such as housing and access to daycare, are a daily reality. It is interesting to note that some anti-sex work proponents admitted at committee that a motivating factor to becoming a sex worker was the need to feed their children; however, it is now their support for Bill C-36 that will ultimately remove the opportunity of another parent to feed his or her children.

These important concerns merited serious deliberation at committee. Although many Members of Parliament addressed the severity of the issue with respect, there was one exchange that warrants further examination. Natasha Potvin, a sex worker brave enough to come before committee, recounted that she freely chose sex work in order to provide for her daughter. She stated that she never felt as though she was abused and, as such, took issue with the label of "victim." She also maintained that she had positive working relationships with her clients. During the Question and Answer round, Conservative MP Stella Ambler equated Potvin's testimony with the following quote, "the way you tell it...it sounds like a tv sitcom about happy hookers." While maintaining respect for the committee process, Potvin's display of dignity was self-evident. She continued to answer questions calmly and truthfully.

Although the preamble to Bill C-36 was touted as a "progressive, paradigm shift" with respect to human rights, this was a hollow declaration. The notion that the Government of Canada bestows dignity upon anyone is a regressive and patriarchal sentiment. All human beings have dignity upon the virtue of their existence and as such deserve to be treated with dignity.

Erica Obsession is a 14 year veteran of the sex industry based in Vancouver, Canada.

Photo: flickr/Nic Redhead

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