A Conservative MP has apologized for asking a female NDP colleague if she has “considered” sex work, something he says was meant to make a point about the “nature of prostitution.”
The moment occurred Tuesday afternoon during a debate on an Opposition motion calling on the House of Commons to condemn a recent decision by the Parole Board of Canada. Officials granted Eustachio Gallese, a man convicted of killing his female partner in 2004, day parole and permission to meet with women to satisfy his “sexual needs.”
Last month, he arranged to meet 22-year-old sex worker Marylène Levesque in a Quebec City hotel room. He is now charged with second-degree murder in her death.
Arnold Viersen, who represents Alberta’s Peace River-Westlock, delivered a speech in the Commons railing against sex work as inherently dangerous and demeaning. He called Levesque’s death “one more example of the preventable violence that women and girls face across Canada by men who view them as nothing more than an object, a commodity to be bought and sold.”
‘Shame on you’
NDP MP Laurel Collins, who represents Victoria, responded by asking the Tory backbencher to listen to the voices of sex workers who say that “sex work is work.” She said the prostitution laws passed by the previous Conservative government in 2014 “criminalized the work environments” that allow sex workers to feel safe.
Bill C-36 criminalized the purchasing and advertising of sex, while decriminalizing its sale. Sex workers complained the rules makes their lives more dangerous by pushing them underground. Sex workers are challenging the law, saying it violates their Charter rights to the “security of the person.”
Collins asked Viersen if he felt the law was a “factor” in Levesque’s death, and many others.
“I would just respond to that by asking the honourable member across the way if it’s an area of work that she has considered and if that is an appropriate…” Viersen responded before trailing off.
“Shame. Shame on you!” an MP could be heard yelling.
“I think this makes the point,” Viersen said. “This makes the point. I do not think that any woman in this country ever chooses this as a job. This is something they are trafficked into, this is something that we have to work hard to end in Canada. Prostitution in Canada is inherently dangerous.”
NDP MP Jack Harris rose on a point of order to call out Viersen’s “insulting and unparliamentary” words.
“He seems to be suggesting the honourable member asked this question because she had a particular interest in a certain line of work,” Harris said.
Viersen said he was not trying to have “any effect on the reputation of the honourable member in question.”
“What I do want to say is that the very fact that I must tread delicately on this, makes my point, I think, about the nature of prostitution,” he said.
The Tory MP later tweeted that he rose in the House to apologize “unreservedly” to Collins.
Collins tweeted that while she is glad Viersen apologized, the same sentiment should be extended to all women.
“Denigrating sex work (and) criminalizing the very things that would keep sex workers safe contribute to increased violence,” she said.
Opposition MPs have repeatedly pressed the government on the circumstances surrounding Levesque’s death.
According to The Canadian Press, the Parole Board of Canada developed a “risk-management strategy” last September that allowed Gallese to meet women on day parole “but only to respond to [his] sexual needs.” Le Soliel newspaper reports Gallese was banned from the erotic massage parlour where Levesque worked because he had been violent with other women.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has said a full investigation into Gallese’s release will be conducted jointly by the Commissioner of Corrections Services and the chair of the Parole Board of Canada. Liberals have stressed decisions from the parole board are independent from the government.
The Tory motion, tabled by Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus, also calls for the public safety committee conduct hearings into the matter.
With files from The Canadian Press