Off-topic but persistent: Albertan dogs 'fair deal' panel seeking decriminalization of sex work

An Albertan is following the Alberta government's "fair deal" panel in hopes of persuading its panel members to consider  decriminalizing sex work. 

Hamish Tergarthen, 28, has attended all but two of the panel's eight meetings so far. At each meeting, he repeats his contention that decriminalizing sex work is important for the workers' safety. 

According to Bill C-36, it's legal to sell sex but not to buy it. 

"Sex work is still very stigmatized," Tergarthen said in an interview following the Jan. 8 meeting in Fort McMurray. "Sex workers are not always able to come out and speak publicly."

The Fair Deal Panel town halls have been aimed at getting feedback from Albertans on what a "fair deal" with Canada would look like. Topics explored have included creating a provincial revenue agency, withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating a provincial police force.

Tergarthen, who said he has no personal connection to the sex trade, felt compelled to be an advocate after learning about it several years ago during his post-secondary studies. 

He wants sex workers to be able to create a college under the health professions act. 

And despite his efforts, he is doubtful the panel will make any recommendations on the topic.

"I'm pretty sure they're not going to," said Tergarthen, adding he will find other ways to continue raising the issue.

Karyn Jackson, who leads support services for the Calgary-based HIV Community Link, said Tergarthen isn't alone in advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.

"Decriminalization is definitely the safest option for sex workers and we are advocating for government to make changes to legislation," she said.

Jamie Malbeuf/CBC News

It would give workers more basic rights and would allow them to develop health and safety standards, Jackson added.

"It helps with identification of sex trafficking and exploitation, as sex workers are much more likely to go and speak with police and have actually a better and healthier relationship with authorities."

Chris Atchison, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, said he's never met a sex worker rights' organization that has argued for anything other than decriminalization.

"If their clients are criminalized, sex workers are criminalized," said Atchison, who works with the university's Human Early Learning Partnership, based at the School of Population and Public Health.

He said when Bill C-36 was passed, the government didn't give consideration to the input of sex workers or advocacy groups advocating for sex workers' rights.

"The whole sex industry… is a political hot potato. So I guess this person coming forward right now is basically forcing someone to hold the potato a little bit," said Atchison.

Tany Yao, an MLA and member of the panel, didn't pay too much attention at first to Tergarthen's dogged appearances at the panel meetings. 

"But then he kept on coming," said Yao.

Yao said he has a great deal of respect for the commitment that Tergarthen has shown. But he does think the discussion is "off-topic."

"Apparently, he's doing it on his own dime and he's become more articulate with each exchange," Yao said. "As much as I can respect and support him in fighting slavery — especially with women and children in the sex industry — my focus is more on getting fair treatment for Alberta."