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Tabatha Southey. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Tabatha Southey. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

TABATHA SOUTHEY

Peter MacKay’s scary, big-budget film noir Add to ...

The Conservatives are using prostitutes. They’re not, as far as what has appeared on the public record, using the services of prostitutes – although this would not surprise or trouble me in the least. The Conservatives are using prostitutes for political gain: Over the past year, under the guidance of Justice Minister Peter MacKay, they’ve busily written sex workers into their script in order to advance the Conservative Party’s narrative.

Last December, the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s prostitution laws – ruling they violated sex workers’ Charter right to safety. The courts demanded the government institute a new law; but the resulting legislation, Bill C-36, which passed the Senate this week, does not make sex work safer. Instead, Bill C-36, which criminalizes the purchase of sex, adds to the stigma that, on top of other aspects of the trade (being alone with someone while naked being but one), makes sex work dangerous. And the process around drafting the bill was so steeped in dated melodrama, I’m surprised an aging boxer and a hapless drifter weren’t called upon to testify.

The Conservatives used what could be called “the world’s oldest narrative device.” They have constructed a bill around a character often known as the “hooker with a heart of gold,” a stock character in many dramas. Rarely fully rounded, she’s introduced to tell the viewer important things about the important hero – in this case, the Conservative Party of Canada. Her frequently silent presence informs the audience that the hero’s a good guy. He’s the kind of man who’s not above concern for someone morally beneath him – like, for example, a sex worker.

Generally, in a hackneyed script, which is what the Conservatives worked to deliver during the hearings into Bill C-36, a sex worker has no agency or depth. Certainly her tersely given backstory reveals neither. It’s only told to reassure us, and the hero, that she didn’t actively choose sex work but was tricked into it by some not-good guy, or forced into it by exceptionally dire circumstances. We almost always learn that our all-but-prop-prostitute can’t stop being a sex worker.

Only characters get choices, and our sex worker is but a cipher. We are told even this much about her because, it’s understood, any woman who had chosen to sell her sexual favours rather than just give them to a hero wouldn’t be a “hooker with a heart of gold.” She’d just be a whore. She’d be an extra – disposable, not credible. Why, were she to try to speak in a scene, she’d be shut down the way Conservatives tried to shut down sex workers who voiced opposition to sections of Bill C-36.

Witnesses such as Natasha Potvin – a former sex worker, whose 15 years in the sex trade were, she reported, a mainly positive experience that allowed her to support her child – departed from the Conservative script and were all but mocked.

Ms. Potvin dared point out the obvious: Criminalizing the purchase of sex doesn’t protect the people selling sex, because, as she said, “It’s the bad clients who are the ones who aren’t afraid of the police or the law.” Some witnesses, even those who generally supported the bill, all but ended up on the cutting-room floor for expressing concern that restricting communication for the purpose of prostitution effectively makes prostitution illegal and certainly makes it more dangerous.

That section, since narrowed to a restriction around communicating for the purpose of prostitution near schools, playgrounds or daycare centres – so, anywhere there are people – all but rolls out a red carpet for a constitutional challenge. But then, this is a big-budget affair. A cynic might say this is the most expensive campaign ad ever produced and that the bill for this bill and the inevitable court challenges is being footed by all Canadians.

Given the characters the Conservatives have drawn for us during all this, I have compared this production to film noir. However, Mr. MacKay’s early statement that the “ultimate objective” of Bill C-36 is “to reduce the demand for prostitution … ultimately abolishing it” to the “greatest extent possible” makes that film seem more like a fantasy.

“There will always be an inherent danger in this degrading activity,” Mr. MacKay also said of prostitution, and he has shown so little concern for the people in the sex trade during this process that I’ve come to see this statement as a promise he’s kept.

But then, we know what generally happens to the “hooker with a heart of gold” when she has fulfilled her narrative purpose, somewhere near the end of the film.

She dies.

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