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Justice Minister Peter MacKay arrives at a Commons Justice committee meeting Monday July 7, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Justice Minister Peter MacKay arrives at a Commons Justice committee meeting Monday July 7, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tories soften prostitution bill provision by expanding legal discussion areas Add to ...

The federal government is backing off a key provision of its proposed prostitution law by expanding the types of areas where sex workers can legally discuss a transaction, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The actual buying of sex, however, is still on track to be criminalized, leaving critics warning sex workers will still face limits that could threaten their safety.

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The change is included as an amendment proposed by government and set to be voted on Tuesday, when the House of Commons justice committee is scheduled to meet for clause-by-clause deliberation of Bill C-36. The amendment would make it a crime to discuss the sale of sex at, or near, a school, playground or daycare. The government’s initial proposal was to ban such discussions anywhere a minor could reasonably be expected to be, a restriction widely criticized by both supporters and opponents of the bill who warned it unfairly and broadly targets sex workers.

(What will be Canada's new prostitution laws? Read The Globe's easy explanation)

The amendment, if passed, would be a concession on the part of the government – though it doesn’t go as far as the NDP, who have proposed an amendment deleting the clause entirely, a move that would place no restrictions on where sex workers can discuss a transaction.

The rest of the six government amendments, however, are minor or technical in scope and don’t respond to other major critiques of the bill. In particular, the government is pressing forward with criminalizing the buying of sex, if not the selling – a scenario some critics warn will still threaten sex workers and, ultimately, expose the law to once again being struck down by the courts.

“That does add detail to the provision. … The main issue is it doesn’t deal with the effects of criminalizing one party in the transaction,” Elin Sigurdson, a lawyer for Pivot Legal Society, said when told of the proposed amendment. Pivot was an intervenor in the so-called Bedford case that led the Supreme Court to strike down Canada’s existing prostitution laws last December, giving Ottawa one year to come up with a new law. That led to Bill C-36, and Ms. Sigurdson was among the witnesses who spoke to the committee last week.

“It doesn’t deal with the harms, the fact the purchaser is still going to be subject to criminal prosecution, and that’s going to mean the whole transaction moves into the most underground, dark, dangerous parts of cities and places,” she said.

Criminal lawyer Leonardo S. Russomanno said the change does expand the areas where a sex worker can discuss a transaction but said there are still problems with the bill.

“They’re still targeting the sex worker, albeit under a narrower construction,” said Mr. Russomanno, a lawyer at Abergel Goldstein and Partners in Ottawa who spoke to the committee last week on behalf of the Criminal Lawyers' Association.

The amendment was particularly relevant because the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s existing laws largely because they threatened the safety of sex workers. The provision, barring them from discussing the sale of sex anywhere children may reasonably be expected to be was “probably the most offensive provision, given what the Supreme Court said in Bedford,” Mr. Russomanno said.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment specifically on the amendments, a copy of which were obtained by The Globe and Mail, but said it’s up to the committee to consider changes.

“But, one thing is clear: doing nothing was never an option. Our Government wants to protect vulnerable Canadians and our communities and we hope the opposition will move quickly to ensure legislation is adopted before the end of the year,” Mr. MacKay’s director of communications, Mary Ann Dewey-Plante, said in a statement Monday.

Mr. MacKay’s parliamentary secretary, Conservative MP Bob Dechert, declined an interview request Monday. In a written statement, he declined to discuss “hypotheticals on possible amendments the committee will look at Tuesday, but said the government is open to changes.

A total of 21 amendments have been proposed to the bill – six from government, 11 from the NDP and four from independent MP Maria Mourani. The Liberals, Bloc Québécois and Green Party did not propose amendments.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story online and in Tuesday's paper incorrectly stated which legal group Leonardo S. Russomanno spoke on behalf of. It was the Criminal Lawyers' Association.

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