Davies presses for prostitute law change

MP says she told the justice minister that the laws themselves imperil women

Kim Bolan and Lindsay Kines
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, October 12, 2002

Vancouver East MP Libby Davies urged federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon this week to review federal prostitution laws in light of the murders and disappearances of 63 women from the Downtown Eastside.

Libby Davies is seeking changes to the prostitution law. (CP/Tom Hansen)

Davies said the laws continue to place women at risk of violence. Fifty-six of the 63 missing women -- including all 15 of those confirmed dead -- vanished after the law was changed in 1985.

"My feeling is that the justice system failed these women terribly," the New Democrat MP said. "And part of that failure was not only the systemic discrimination within the police department, in terms of how complaints were dealt with or not dealt with, but also the Criminal Code itself."

The 1985 law makes it illegal for sex trade workers to solicit in public, despite the fact that prostitution itself is legal. Critics argue the law creates a situation where impoverished street prostitutes are seen as a nuisance to be pushed from one neighbourhood to the next. Eventually, they end up working in industrial areas where they are vulnerable.

"They are standing in the street in very unsafe, poorly lit areas," Davies said. "I mean, this is all because of the environment that is created by the Criminal Code -- the focus on street prostitution."

Davies said Cauchon seemed to be "very unaware" of those issues. "I tried to press that very vigorously with him to make it clear to him."

Davies also asked Cauchon to review the 1998 report of a federal-provincial-territorial working group on prostitution.

"He seemed to be interested in that," she said. "He did say he would get back to me. He did say he would look at this prostitution federal-provincial task force."

Davies said she wants the minister to come up with a public review process that would include sex trade workers.

"They know more than anybody what it is that they are facing and what it is that needs to be changed," she said.

Cauchon was unavailable Friday but Irene Arseneau, his press secretary, described the meeting with Davies as "very cordial."

"The minister did indicate that, as in a lot of other complex issues like this one, sometimes legislative reform is not always the answer, not the only answer," Arseneau said.

But Cauchon promised to ask his staff for an update on the status of the federal-provincial-territorial working group on prostitution, she said.

Simon Fraser criminology professor John Lowman said the issue dates back to 1985, when a committee recommended that if prostitution was going to remain legal, the government needed to decide where and under what circumstances it could occur. The Conservative government of the day ignored the advice, and simply revised the law so that it treats prostitution as a nuisance, Lowman said.

"People at the time predicted that the violence rate would increase. And it did increase."

Lowman noted that in addition to the disappearance of 63 women from the Downtown Eastside, there have been dozens of confirmed murders since the law passed in 1985.

The Vancouver Sun reported last fall that there have been 60 murders of sex trade workers in B.C. over the past two decades, other than those alleged to have been committed by Robert (Willy) Pickton, who is charged with killing 15 women.

"So it's not just the missing women, there's been an epidemic of murders of prostitutes since they changed that law," Lowman said.

"The big issue is: Where and under what circumstances should prostitution occur? The government is abrogating its responsibility until it answers that question."

Lowman, who began sounding the alarm years ago, said he hopes the missing women case will prompt a different approach to the way society thinks about prostitution.

"It's not just the law we've got to deal with, we've got to deal with a whole lot more. But a good place to start would be revising the Criminal Code."

Davies said she has been holding meetings in the Downtown Eastside involving agencies that assist sex trade workers, to get viewpoints on what needs to be done with the federal law.

"I really think that needs to be done in a much bigger way. I can help do that as a member of Parliament, but it needs to be undertaken by the federal government. The minister of justice is the guy to take this on."

Davies also told Cauchon that there is a lack of funding for agencies in the neighbourhood who provide services for sex trade workers.

There also needs to be money for community-based research on the sex trade, Davies said.

"There are so many double-standards and contradictions in terms of law enforcement aspects."

Meanwhile, negotiations continued Friday between the ministry of the attorney-general and Peter Ritchie, the lawyer representing Pickton.

Ritchie had threatened to withdraw from the case by Friday unless the government agreed to provide legal aid for four additional lawyers, experts and detectives to prepare for a preliminary hearing next month.

Curt Albertson, an official in the ministry of the attorney-general, said negotiations were continuing.

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 Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun

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Updated: August 21, 2016