NEWS

Prostitution bill's fate unclear as committee begins final review

07/15/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/13/2014 05:59 EDT
The House of Commons justice committee is moving on to the second phase of its study on the government's bid to rewrite Canada's prostitution laws.

Over the course of four days last week, during back-to-back sessions, MPs heard from more than 70 witnesses, including current and former sex workers, families of women victimized by the sex trade, law enforcement, legal experts, academics, researchers, frontline outreach workers and human rights activists.

Nearly all of the witnesses — including many of those who were, by and large, supportive of the bill — urged the government to strip the bill of any provisions that could result in criminal charges against sex workers, particularly the sections restricting their ability to offer their services in public, which some witnesses said would pose a risk to the safety of sex workers.

Later today, MPs on the committee will begin clause-by-clause review — a painstaking process that involves going through the full text of the bill, line by line, as well as debating and voting on any proposed amendments that were submitted to the committee over the weekend.

If past history is any guide, there's little chance the Opposition will have much luck persuading the Conservative contingent to back any effort to tweak the wording of the bill.

In this case, it's not even clear how many Opposition amendments will be on the table.

Tories, NDP mum on possible amendments

A spokesman for Liberal MP Sean Casey said his party hasn't proposed any changes, as they voted against the bill at second reading.

Meanwhile, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told CBC News the bill was "so bad" there was no way to amend it, although her party intends to put forward motions to delete provisions at report stage.

As for the New Democrats, they weren't willing to go on the record, but have hinted they will be putting forward at least one amendment.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the government — and, specifically, Justice Minister Peter MacKay — to decide what, if any, changes should be made to the bill based on what the committee heard during last week's marathon session.

Although rare, it isn't entirely unheard of for a minister to exercise his or her prerogative to tweak a bill before it goes back to the House for a final vote. MacKay said earlier this month he was open to amendments.

Just this spring, Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre responded to widespread concern over his proposal to rejig Canada's election laws by bringing forward substantive amendments that addressed specific worries expressed by witnesses at committee, including issues related to voter identification and the investigative process.

As of Monday afternoon, however, the minister's office wasn't willing to disclose what, if any, changes the government is expecting its members to propose on Tuesday.

Even if there are no Conservative amendments on the table, the bill could still be amended, as Conservative MPs could simply vote to delete particularly problematic sections entirely.

"Committee is master of its own destiny," MacKay spokeswoman Mary Ann Dewey-Plante reminded CBC News.

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