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Vancouver sex workers to have a say MPs studying Canadian prostitution laws seek advice in seamy Downtown Eastside

MPs studying Canadian prostitution laws seek advice in seamy Downtown Eastside

VANCOUVER

from all five parties will solicit advice from sex-trade workers today and tomorrow in the notorious Downtown Eastside on whether Canada's current prostitution laws need changing.

The committee has already stopped in Halifax, Toronto and Montreal, but will extend its usual one-day stay to two days in Vancouver beginning today because of the number of delegations wishing to speak on the issue of whether prostitution laws should be repealed.

In earlier stops, the committee heard warnings from sex workers that the disappearance and presumed murders of prostitutes occur regularly in Canadian cities -- not just in Vancouver, where dozens have gone missing.

"We are being told over and over that the danger goes on," said Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies, co-chair of the committee.

The homicides of numerous prostitutes are still under investigation in Winnipeg and Edmonton.

In Vancouver, at least 69 sex workers, many of them aboriginal and drug addicted, vanished over a period of two decades with little attention focused on their disappearance. Robert Pickton, a farmer in Port Coquitlam, was arrested in 2002 and is facing at least 15 charges of first-degree murder in a trial slated to begin next year.

Ms. Davies said few sex workers appearing before the committee are calling for legalization of prostitution because they do not want police intervention or guidelines for a red-light district. Rather, nearly all say they want Criminal Code bans lifted on bawdy houses and procurement.

Jamie Lee Hamilton, a former sex worker who lobbies for decriminalization, said she expects little change to result from the committee's hearings. Since 1985, at least 20 studies have been done on the current prostitution laws.

"These are dangerous situations, and everyone continues to fail to protect this population," she said. "A committee going around to different places is not going to make changes happen."

The committee received $157,000 for its across-Canada tour. It requested last week that it be given an additional $200,000 to study prostitution in Britain, Sweden and other European countries.

Ms. Hamilton said that sum would be better spent sending 10 women back to school or 30 women to detoxification programs.

Conservative MP Art Hanger, who sits on the committee, said panel members do not need to go to Europe to learn how other countries have dealt with prostitution.

"From what I've heard and have been able to determine so far is that legalizing or decriminalizing is not the healthy way to go," he said yesterday. "Running to Europe and listening to people say red-light districts are the best thing since sliced bread raises serious questions to me about whether this is what the broad community wants."

The committee is to make stops in Edmonton and Winnipeg before preparing a report expected in June.

Today in Vancouver, Pivot, a community organization, is expected to present to the committee its survey of 93 sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. The survey found that all workers wanted the freedom to operate in designated houses off the streets.

"By continuing to have these laws, it forces street workers into areas where they are vulnerable, isolated, and no one is around to notice if they go missing," said Katrina Pacey, president of the Pivot board of directors.

If the committee is able to get the prostitution laws changed, Ms. Pacey said, the most noticeable impact in the Downtown Eastside would be an immediate drop in the number of prostitutes on the streets.

She said a change seems more feasible under the current minority Liberal government than it has at any time in the past 20 years.

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