Watch above: The Harper government is set to introduce new prostitution legislation, after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down existing laws last year. But, sex workers say they’ve barely been consulted about the proposed changes. Vassy Kapelos reports.
TORONTO – Former sex worker and current rights advocate Valerie Scott said the day the Supreme Court struck down three prostitution-related prohibitions was the “best day” of her life.
But in the four months since then, as Parliament touted a consultation process with key stakeholders to craft new legislation, Scott and other sex worker advocates don’t feel the government is taking their feedback seriously.
Scott, who works as a legal coordinator for Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), was one of the applicants in the landmark Bedford ruling that struck down three prostitution-related prohibitions. Her co-applicants were Amy Lebovitch and Terri-Jean Bedford—namesake of the ruling.
Scott said Justice Minister Peter MacKay held a meeting at his office March 3 with about fifteen groups on both sides of the debate, who were each given five minutes to present their position on what the new legislation should look like.
“I believe it was nine anti-sex worker groups and six sex worker groups,” said Scott. “But it was clearly simply an optics meeting: We were given nine days notice to come up with the money to get to Ottawa, and for five minutes. And that has been the extent of the consultation.”
Christine Bruckert, a board member of Ottawa-based sex worker rights group POWER and criminology professor, said she wasn’t aware of further consultations with sex workers.
“You had an online survey then the government has apparently consulted with some—what they would consider key stakeholders—so the police and municipalities, we know for sure,” she said.
MacKay said Tuesday that he did consult with sex workers in face-to-face discussions at the justice department, but “for reasons of privacy, I’m not going to say who.”
“There was also a number who participated in the online consultations, so yes, we’ve heard directly from sex workers,” he added.
But Scott warned that the online consultations—which were open to all Canadians—meant that people unfamiliar with how prostitution works may have been over-represented.
“People who’ve never been in sex work, people who don’t know anything about it—they primarily are the people who responded,” she suggested, adding that many church groups were encouraged to write in.
“Sermons were given to parishioners to write in, churches all over the place had posters up telling people to write in about how awful prostitution is.
“To have a consultation where primarily church groups are responding and their voices are prioritized over ours, is ridiculous.”
Scott believes the government isn’t interested in consulting with people in the business, but instead wants to bring in some form of the Nordic model for the new legislation—a model that both Scott and Bruckert said would only reproduce the laws deemed unconstitutional by the Bedford ruling.
“Sex workers were going into darker areas, they were staying out of sight, they weren’t working in teams,” said Bruckert. “So now if you put the focus on the clients and not the sex workers, the clients are not going to go in well-lit areas, the clients are going to want to take their dates further away from the common area; all of which increases sex workers’ vulnerability to violence.”
Watch extended interview: Valerie Scott on why she believes the government isn’t consulting with people in the prostitution industry, and the safety problems with the Nordic model.
The Nordic model—which originated in Sweden—poses other problems, like clients who won’t reveal their names when booking calls, or forcing sex workers to testify against their customers.
“We won’t know who we are seeing, and that’s a gift to sexual predators pretending to be our clients,” said Scott. “[In Sweden] as soon as [police] see a client enter your apartment, they come barging in, kicking in the door, arrest the client, they ransack the apartment looking for evidence like condoms—think how stupid that is from a public health perspective—and then we are compelled by law to testify against our clients in court. If we do not, we are held in contempt of court.”
MP Joy Smith, who said she’s spoken with MacKay on the issue, told Global News the petition she posted on her parliamentary website calling for this Nordic model approach that “targets the buyers of sex instead of the prostituted person(s)” has been a popular choice.
“I am receiving these petitions daily and I have presented them on numerous occasions in the House of Commons. To date, my office has received over 30,000 signatures from Canadians,” said Smith, who added she’s spoken with sex workers who are for, not against, such a model.
“They want to target the johns, and they want the victims to be rehabilitated,” she said.
“They want a Canada-wide educational program. And they want the exit strategies for the victims. … I’m very confident that our government will come through with a very good plan.”
Scott believes the best plan for the government is to do nothing; let the three laws against keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution, and street soliciting fall and be regulated by municipalities under employment and labour laws, citing New Zealand as an example.
She doesn’t believe the Nordic model would “pass charter muster” and said she (along with colleague Lebovitch) would be willing to take the matter back to court.
“We’re hoping that we won’t have to spend the next 10 to 15 years amassing evidence of rapes, robberies, beatings and murders to take to court to prove that the law is harmful,” she said.
When asked what he says to concerns that punishing johns is the wrong way to legislate and will end up harming sex workers, MacKay had seven words:
“Well I say wait for the legislation.”
With files from Vassy Kapelos
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