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Spend more to help sex workers exit industry, witnesses urge Ottawa

OTTAWA - A diverse chorus of aboriginal women, police leaders and former prostitutes took turns Tuesday denouncing as insufficient the Harper government's five-year, $20-million pledge to help sex workers leave the industry.

The steady barrage of criticism came on the second day of rare summer hearings by the House of Commons justice committee as it examines Bill C-36, the government's proposed new prostitution bill.

The offer of funding fits the so-called "Nordic model" that several Scandinavian countries have adopted to fight prostitution, and which the Harper government's proposed legislation appears designed to emulate.

In addition to making it illegal to be a client or a pimp, the Conservative government approach calls for social spending to help exploited women get out of the sex industry.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay has said the government hopes the funding, along with the new bill — which targets demand for sexual services by criminalizing pimps and johns — will foster an end to prostitution entirely.

But throughout the day Tuesday, a parade of witnesses dismissed the level of funding as falling well far short of the mark.

"From our perspective, $20 million is peanuts," said Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

"We are very, very far behind for aboriginals, especially for aboriginal women. So it's going to be very difficult to divide up this pie."

Audette linked the prostitution issue to the broader problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Aboriginal groups and international organizations have asked the Harper government to conduct a federal inquiry into the problem, but the government has so far refused.

Audette said her group also has tried to lobby MacKay for a national roundtable to discuss how to prevent prostitution, as part of a broader socio-economic approach.

Rick Hanson, Calgary's police chief, also called for a national strategy in which Ottawa, the provinces, municipalities and social agencies would work towards abolishing prostitution.

Hanson described the $20-million pledge, which he said amounts to $125,000 a year in Calgary, as "woefully inadequate."

After his testimony, Hanson said he hasn't directly approached the Harper government — or the city's best-known MP, the prime minister himself — about increasing their funding commitment.

But he said the underlying causes of prostitution — child abuse, drug addiction and domestic violence — need to be addressed, and the agencies that deal with these problems need more help.

"I don't think the prime minister lays awake at night wondering what Rick Hanson has to think about anything, chief of Calgary, or otherwise," he said in an interview.

"I can tell you that $20 million, when you actually spread it across five years, and you spread it across the country, it's a start, but that's all it is — it's a start."

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the existing prostitution law last December and gave the government one year to bring in a replacement.

The $20-million commitment is an additional government commitment to help women get out of the sex industry, but it is not part of the actual bill.

MacKay's office defended the spending initiative as Tuesday's testimony was unfolding, but a spokeswoman declined to say whether the minister would consider boosting spending.

"Our government has increased transfers to provinces and territories to an all-time high and will continue to work in collaboration with our counterparts to assist the overwhelming majority of prostitutes looking to leave this dangerous and harmful line of work," Mary Ann Dewey-Plante said in an email.

Several witnesses at the hearings have said increased social spending is a vital component the fight against prostitution.

Katarina MacLeod, the founder of the group Rising Angels, said she was trapped in the sex industry for 15 years. When she got out, said she had to be taught self-worth, along with how to speak and how to dress.

"Women exiting need our help," MacLeod told the all-party panel of MPs.

"I was trapped in the sex trade for 15 years. In those years, I was subjected to all kinds of different abuse. I was anally raped, spat on, had my jaw dislocated, had my hair pulled, been punched — and the list goes on."

Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan testified Monday that he'd like to see a larger federal spending commitment, since his province already spends $8 million a year on the problem.

NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin said the government needs to spend more in that area.

"The Conservatives will spend more on the commercial" to advertise the bill than they will on helping prostitutes, she predicted.

"He (MacKay) wants to eradicate prostitution. But with $20 million, I tend to take him not too seriously."

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