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MP apologizes for sex work remarks

Arnold Viersen asked female NDP MP if she ever ‘considered’ sex work
arnold viersen
Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen.

BARREHAD/WESTLOCK - Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen made national news last week for a controversial line of questioning in the House of Commons that had him asking a female NDP member if she had ever “considered” sex work.

It was during a Feb. 4 debate in the House over the murder of 22-year-old sex worker Marylène Levesque, allegedly at the hands of a convicted criminal who was out on day parole, that Viersen posed the question to Laurel Collins, an NDP MP for Victoria.

Viersen was responding to Collins’ question regarding Bill C-36, also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. Under that legislation, which was passed in 2014, Levesque’s killer being granted day parole for the purpose of meeting women would have been illegal because the purchase of sex is itself illegal in Canada.

Therefore, sex work is not work, he said.

For her part, Collins urged the House to consider that Bill C-36 criminalized workspaces for sex workers and should also be seen as a factor in Levesque’s death, which prompted Viersen’s reply:

“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.”

He was interrupted by boos and calls of ‘shame’ from the other side, to which Viersen said: “Mr. Speaker, I think this makes the point.”

He apologized “unreservedly” shortly afterward.

“It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, you could say that much … I think fundamentally we disagree on whether sex work is work. That’s the point I was trying to make,” said Viersen in a phone interview from Ottawa, the day after the comment was made.

“I would say that sex work is not work precisely because if I had asked her if she had ever considered to be a dentist, we would not have been here today.

“I don’t think that ‘sex work’ is a term. Prostitution is violence against women,” he clarified.

Collins replied to his apology on Twitter that day, writing that she was glad Viersen apologized to her, but told him “to extend his apology to all women.

“Denigrating sex work and criminalizing the very things that would keep sex workers safe contribute to increased violence,” she tweeted, ending with the hashtag #SexWorkIsWork.

The subject of debate that day was the Parole Board of Canada’s decision to allow day parole for Eustachio Gallese — the Quebec City man who was convicted in 2006 for the murder of his female partner — to “meet (his) sexual needs.”

“Although you are still single and you say you aren’t ready to enter into a serious relationship with a woman, you are able to efficiently evaluate your needs and expectations towards women. During the hearing, your parole officer underlined a strategy that was developed with the goal that would allow you to meet women in order to meet your sexual needs,” reads part of the decision.

In his speech, Viersen drew attention to the Parole Board’s decision for what he called the “perceived” right to purchase sex, but wasn’t able to offer more clarity on whether or not that strategy made mention of accessing prostitution.

“It said that he was not ready for a relationship with a woman, which, you draw the conclusion, he ended up where he ended up.”

Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus clarified in a press conference that the parole board’s decision effectively gave Gallese permission to meet women, and that includes sex workers.

The motion his party brought forward around the Levesque murder was focused on parole board decisions that “fly in the face of public safety,” added associate critic Glen Motz.

Despite Viersen’s remarks in House debates, the Conservative motion moved forward on Wednesday with Liberal backing. A House of Commons public safety committee will now probe the Gallese day parole decision and return with recommendations.

Andreea Resmerita,
Follow me on Twitter @andreea_res