A Conservative politician made disparaging remarks about sex workers in the House of Commons just over a week after two sex workers were found dead in Quebec.
MPs were in the house of commons on Tuesday to debate a motion to condemn the Parole Board of Canada's decision to release a convicted killer on parole. After New Democratic Party MP Laurel Collins urged Parliament to consider decriminalizing sex work, Arnold Viersen, the MP for Peace River-Westlock in Alberta, asked “if it’s an area of work that (Collins) has considered.”
After heckling ensued, Viersen said, “I do not think any woman in this country ever chooses this as a job. This is something that they are trafficked into.”
Viersen later apologized to Collins for his comments.
In a statement to VICE, Viersen said he stands by his statements that oppose decriminalizing sex work. There are “those who believe that prostitution should be legalized and that men should be entitled to buy sex and treat women as commodities. This line of thinking is heinous. It is evil,” Viersen said.
Viersen’s comments come after two sex workers, Marylène Levesque, 22, and Vanessa Primeau, 23, were found dead on January 23.
Levesque’s body was found at a hotel in Quebec City’s Ste-Foy district after convicted killer Eusatchio Gallese, 51, turned himself in to local police.
Early the same day, first responders arrived on scene after a 911 call reported a garage ablaze in Montreal’s east end Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough. Primeau’s body was found inside and she was pronounced dead on scene. Multiple sources have said a padlock sealing the doors from the outside kept Primeau inside while the building burned. According to CTV, officers labelled the incident a “suspicious death.”
In a statement to VICE, Montreal police said they cannot confirm specific details but they continue to investigate the situation.
Primeau, known by loved ones as “Petit Pied” (“Little Foot”), was one of Melanie Bernard’s best friends. They met almost four years ago in downtown Montreal while both women struggled with a bout of homelessness. Primeau told Bernard she has beautiful eyes, they chatted, grabbed some coffee, and checked into a women’s shelter together, Bernard said. The two remained close.
“She’d call me every two days. Since she died, I’m still waiting for her call,” Bernard said.
Bernard told VICE that Primeau continued to struggle with homelessness and sometimes slept in the garage that caught fire—but she never locked the door. Primeau could enter and leave the garage at her leisure.
According to Bernard, she and Primeau’s family have reached out to police but aren’t receiving information. “Even her mother tells me she’s fighting to figure out what’s going on,” Bernard said.
Levesque’s case drew international media attention because the suspect is a convicted murderer who has served time for brutally killing his wife and was out on day parole when Levesque died.
Government officials and advocates responded by demanding information as to how Canada’s parole board granted Gallese limited freedom. The outcry sparked a joint and ongoing investigation between Corrections Canada and the board.
Levesque’s case renewed conversations around decriminalizing sex work in Canada, ultimately sparking the exchange in the House of Commons between Collins and Viersen.
Selling sex is not a criminal offence in Canada, but in 2014, the Harper government introduced Bill C-36, legislation that made advertising and purchasing sex illegal.
The bill was supposed to be reviewed in 2019. The Ministry of Justice maintains that government committees are being reconstituted and no action will be taken until they’re formed and can “determine their agendas and priorities.” A ministry spokesperson also noted that sex work itself is decriminalized.
But just because sex workers are technically allowed to sell sex, it doesn’t mean they can sell sex, said Sandra Wesley, the executive director of Stella, a non-profit by sex workers for sex workers. She said that the only way to protect sex workers is to decriminalize sex work and “let sex workers exist as sex workers.”
The legal issues around sex work prevent sex workers from reporting abuse when it arises out of fear that police shut down businesses and arrest clients and colleagues, Wesley said, which is why she worked with a community of sex workers to draft recommendations, including the removal of all federal criminal provisions specific to sex work.
“We’re all tired of being…theoretical concepts and our lives being debated by people who don’t actually care about it,” Wesley said. “The whole community feels like marginalized lives are completely irrelevant to the general public.”
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.
Correction: An earlier version of this headline said Viersen suggested Collins did sex work. It has been updated to reflect that he apologized for asking her if she considered sex work as a profession.