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One of the architects of Sweden’s anti-prostitution strategy — a model the Conservatives are trying to emulate — says the government’s proposed new law is likely unconstitutional.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

"Could you let me speak for a second?" sex worker Amy Lebovitch said to Conservative MP Bob Dechert. "Are you asking a question or giving a speech?"

Her question during a session of the justice committee Thursday underlined a disconnect in this week's parliamentary hearings on the Conservatives government's new law on prostitution. The government has underpinned the whole bill with the assertion that sex workers are victims, and need to be protected from exploitation. But the Conservative MPs on the committee have often seemed less interested in hearing from them than making points from their testimony.

And there are other signs that suggest the government's primary interest isn't protecting the people it calls the victims – and that its priority is justifying a new law that does a lot of what the old one did: expressing disapproval and keeping a nuisance out of public view.

The old laws, let's remember, didn't outlaw prostitution. They banned some of the public-nuisance aspects, outlawing brothels and selling sex on the streets. But the Supreme Court found those laws also put sex workers lives at risk, and that the government had no right to do that just to regulate a nuisance.

Now the government has rewritten the law – and the stated goal is no longer to regulate a nuisance, it's to prevent exploitation.

A series of sex workers and former sex workers have come before the Commons justice committee this week. They argued for opposite sides of the issue, some with harrowing tales.

Timea Nagy, a Hungarian-Canadian who founded an organization called Walk With Me Canada, said she was raped by three Russian men, forced into prostitution, and trafficked to Canada. She wants buying sex to be outlawed, so she favours the government's Bill C-36, which does just that.

Ms. Lebovitch, the executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada, and one of the people who successfully challenged the existing prostitution laws to the Supreme Court of Canada was telling MPs that making her clients criminals means she'll have to live dangerously with secret encounters.

Mr. Dechert, a veteran Toronto lawyer, wanted to make the point that the new law would be better than the old one struck down by the Supreme Court, that now she doesn't have to fear getting arrested if she reports violence to police, or losing her house because it's considered a brothel. That's when Ms. Lebovitch got frustrated because she couldn't get a word in. Criminalizing her clients, she eventually said, will prevent her from screening her clients to stay safe.

Mr. Dechert wasn't rude. He was courteous. But he was questioning witnesses to advance the government narrative. So was his MP colleague, Robert Goguen – in a much more misguided and crass way – when he asked Ms. Nagy if her freedom of expression would have been violated if police had rescued her when she was gang-raped.

What point is the government trying to make? The main one is that prostitutes are exploited victims, usually forced into sex work against their will.

Right or wrong, that's certainly a legitimate argument, made at the hearings this week by Ms. Nagy and others –who argue that if prostitutes are coerced victims, it makes sense to outlaw buying sex, to reduce demand.

But the thing is, if the sex workers are the victims, the Conservative government doesn't seem interested in doing much to help them, apart from criminalizing their clients.

Justice Minister Peter McKay unveiled a plan to spend $20-million over five years to help sex workers get out of the business. It's a remarkably tiny sum if the government really believes all sex workers are victims of exploitation.

And many of the effects of the new law are similar to the old law. The new law criminalizes buyers of sex, but sellers, sex workers, would still be prosecuted for selling sex in a public place where a minor might be found. Advertising will be restricted. Prostitution will be kept out of view.

Even the name of the new law suggests that that's the goal, keeping it from being a nuisance to communities, still comes first. It's called the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. The exploited persons, the people who are supposed to be the victims, seem to come second.

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