Skip to main content

Conservative parliament secretary Bob Dechert on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb. 11, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick

The Conservative government has amended its prostitution bill, giving sex workers more places to legally solicit clients – though it will still be illegal for anyone to actually pay for sex.

The change to Bill C-36, first reported by The Globe, was made by the House of Commons justice committee in a meeting Tuesday. It reworded the bill to ban discussing the sale of sex at or near a playground, school or daycare, while the previous wording banned it anywhere children could "reasonably"‎ be expected to be.

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

That wording was "open to misinterpretation," ‎Conservative MP Bob Dechert told the committee, speaking on behalf of government. He suggested the new rules will allow sex workers to work out of their homes, for instance.

"Please choose to do it in a safe way. We're giving you that power. The police are not going to harass you for being in your own apartment or advertising your own services," Mr. Dechert said.

It was one of seven amendments by the committee, though most were minor. The bill was passed by the committee Tuesday and will now be sent back to the House of Commons.

However, under the bill, it will still be illegal for any of the sex workers' clients to actually pay for the services – regardless of where sex workers themselves will be permitted to discuss a sale. Rather than legalizing the practice, the bill is focusing the penalty on the buyer.

"We're finally addressing this ugly situation that has gone on in Canada for far too long," Mr. Dechert told the committee. He called the limits – not discussing the sale ‎at or near playgrounds, schools or daycares – a "tiny piece of real estate in this vast country of ours."

"Can we not give [kids] that little place? Please, not in the schoolyard, not in the playground," Mr. Dechert told the committee, referring to the sex trade.

The NDP proposed deleting the clause entirely, placing no limits on where sex workers can discuss a transaction. "We need to decriminalize the victims themselves," NDP MP Françoise Boivin said, referring to sex workers. That proposal was shot down by the Conservatives on the committee

Bill C-36 was tabled after the Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws last December, largely because it violated the Charter by endangering the safety of sex workers.

Many critics of Bill C-36 have warned it, too, will risk the safety of sex workers, in part because it criminalizes clients and drives the exchange underground. As reported in The Globe and Mail, critics of the bill say the change made later in the day by government does not go far enough to address the concerns.

The Conservatives began Tuesday's meeting by voting down an NDP motion to refer the bill pre-emptively to t‎he Supreme Court, which Ms. Boivin said would be the "prudent and diligent" thing. Mr. Dechert said the government is confident the bill would survive a constitutional challenge, and that MPs have "a responsibility to propose a new way of dealing with prostitution."

The government has proposed a total of six amendments, the other five being technical or minor in scope. All of them passed. One opposition motion passed, but only after being amended by the government – it will require the Department of Justice to conduct a five year review of the effects of the bill. The NDP had asked for a review after two years.

The government hopes to make Bill C-36 law before December, in keeping with a one-year deadline the Supreme Court gave in its ruling. After that year, the current laws will expire.