The federal government’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act came into force on Dec. 6, but a group of pro-prostitution and other social agencies are calling on the Harper government to scrap the bill as some jurisdictions, including Ontario, consider their options to either ignore or challenge the law.
Bill-36 was passed in Parliament in the Fall and came into effect on the 25th anniversary of the École Polytechnique school shooting. It was the government’s response to the Supreme Court’s Bedford decision which threw out the limited Criminal Code restrictions on prostitution, which the justices claimed violated the Constitutional rights of life, liberty, and security of the person by placing prostitutes in danger. The Conservative government’s law focuses on punishing johns by clamping down on the purchasing of sex, as well as prostitution near minors, the advertising of the selling of sexual services, and human trafficking.
Critics complain that the so-called Nordic Model still makes prostitution illegal and therefore does not protect women engaged in such activities. Justice Minister Peter MacKay maintains that prostitution is inherently dangerous to vulnerable women and seeks to stamp it out. In September, he said, “let us be clear about Bill C-36’s ultimate objective: that is to reduce the demand for prostitution with a view towards discouraging entry into it, deterring participation in it and ultimately abolishing it to greatest extent possible.”
The Canadian Public Health Association released a report the week after C-36 came into effect calling on the government to regulate the sex industry as a regular business under existing health and safety rules to protect the safety of prostitutes. It also called on the government to tackle prostitution by dealing with “root causes” such as poverty and homelessness. “There are indications that a public health approach based on harm reduction and addressing the social determinants of health may provide the tools needed to address the underlying factors that result in participation in the sex trade, and vulnerability to human trafficking and violence,” the report said. The authors add: “Existing prostitution laws should be replaced by a framework of public health and business law that supports the social and occupational health and safety concerns related to sex work.”
The CPHA claims that legalization of prostitution 6would help combat higher incidences of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases among prostitutes. The report called for a “public health approach to sex work in Canada based on the principles of social justice, attention to human rights and equity, evidence-informed policy and practice, and addressing the underlying determinants of health.”
More than 60 groups across the country have called for a repeal of the law, including Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights (a pro-abortion group), the John Howard Society (a prisoner rights group), TransPride (a transgender/transsexual rights group), the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Canadian AIDS Society, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the International Workers of the World Women’s Committee, and the Canadian Harm Reduction Network, plus numerous local youth organizations.
In a release, they claim C-36 “recreates the harms of the provisions struck down in the Bedford case” and that instead the “full decriminalization of sex work” is necessary to “ensure the safety, dignity, and security of all sex workers.” They call for decriminalization of prostitution, full legal and labour rights for sex workers, and the “destigmatization of sex work.” They also urged provincial and municipal governments to not enforce the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she had “grave concerns” about the law and will review it. She said it does not “protect exploited persons or communities” and wondered whether the new law would pass constitutional muster because it “will not make sex workers safer.” Wynne, who had been publicly feuding with Stephen Harper at the time over the Prime Minister not meeting with her, said she would investigate how to balance enforcement of the law with constitutional protections.
Ontario Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur is reviewing the law and there is no timeline to table her report. Among her options is not prosecuting prostitution-related charges laid by police or challenging the law in Ontario court. The Liberal provincial government could refer C-36 to the Ontario Court of Appeal.
In Toronto, City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam got 24 of her colleagues – more than half of city council – to sign a petition calling on Wynne to stand up against the new prostitution legislation and direct police not to enforce the law. Wong-Tam’s ward in downtown Toronto is known for its prostitutes and the gay village. Among those signing the petition was City Councillor Chin Lee, whom new Mayor John Tory recently appointed to the Police Services Board.
For the past year, police in many jurisdictions stopped arresting people for breaking laws related to prostitution while the government re-wrote the law as directed by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Globe and Mail reported that the Vancouver Police Department issued prostitution enforcement guidelines after last December’s Supreme Court decision which stated: “Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD” and thus stipulates “alternative measures and assistance must be considered with enforcement a last resort.” That policy is not expected to change with VPD spokesman Sergeant Randy Fincham telling the Globe, “our priority will remain the safety of sex workers.”
Justice Minister MacKay said the federal government expects law enforcement agencies to arrest individuals violating the new law and for provinces to direct crown prosecutors to pursue charges.
Meanwhile, Now, a free, left-wing weekly newspaper in Toronto that publishes ads for sexual services, said they will not stop running the advertisements despite the fact it defies C-36’s prohibition on advertising sex for sale. Alice Klein, Now’s editor and chief executive officer, said “we have always refused to discriminate against sex work and sex workers.” She explained to the CBC, “we are committed to free expression and we don’t believe it’s our right to say which advertisers are allowed to advertise and which advertisers aren’t.”
Lou Iacobelli, a Toronto pro-family activist and former educator, said on his blog Everyday for Life, “Now’s stand is to contravene the law and fight for ‘human rights’ for ‘sex workers.’ This is so hypocritical coming from a publication that objectifies and turns into a commodity the human person in order to exploit and degrade them for sexual gratification and profits.”
Alan Young, a lawyer for dominatrix Terri Bedford, who challenged the prostitution law leading to the Supreme Court to throw out the old provisions, said he expects a legal challenge to the new law and he does not expect it to stand.
Julia Beazley, policy analyst with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said that C-36 is a first step in combating prostitution, which requires a culture-shift so that “objectification of the human body and commodification of sexual activity” is no longer tolerated. Beazley said on the EFC’s Activate website, “we need to continue to work together to change the way our society views prostitution, and actively challenge the attitudes and mindsets that create the culture where prostitution is accepted and the demand for it flourishes.”