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Demands grow for Canada to decriminalize sex work after the election

Protestors are seen during rally at Allan Gardens in Toronto. .
Protestors are seen during rally at Allan Gardens in Toronto. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

More than 150 human rights groups are calling on whichever federal party forms the government after the next election to decriminalize sex work as a way to protect the health and safety of those involved in the industry. 

“Every aspect of sex work is criminalized, which means that sex workers are unable to access social, legal and sexual health supports, should they need them,” said Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, in a statement released this week.

“Ultimately, decriminalization is a first step to ensuring sex workers’ safety and dignity, which means creating spaces where they can work in a way that they feel safe and not isolated.”

READ MORE: London court case challenges Canada’s prostitution laws

The statement has been signed by organizations across Canada including the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, and a number of sex worker rights groups.

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It comes as legislation to decriminalize sex work has been put forward in the U.S. in places such as New York and Washington, D.C.

A number of current U.S. presidential candidates, including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have also expressed support for the decriminalization of sex workers.

So far this election cycle in Canada, only the Green Party has made an explicit platform promise to overhaul Canada’s sex work laws. And the Liberals are being criticized for not tackling the issue during their time in government.

READ MORE: The reality of sex work in Canada

In 2014, the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper implemented Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which made it a crime to pay for sex work, but not to be a sex worker. 

These sex work laws are among the most restrictive in the Western world. In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized sex work, and a 2008 study of the situation found improved working conditions for sex workers who were more willing to report acts of violence and abuse to police.

The Conservatives’ sex work law replaced the previous laws that were struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court of Canada. The three laws include prohibiting anyone from keeping a “bawdy house,” living off the avails of sex work, and communicating for the purposes of sex work.

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Specifically, the court ruled that the previous laws imposed “dangerous conditions on prostitution” and prevented people engaged in a “risky, but legal, activity from taking steps to protect themselves.”

The court gave the Conservative government one year to come up with new laws. Bill C-36 was the Conservative’s answer to the ruling, much to the dismay of sex workers who said it would still make their work and lives unsafe. 

READ MORE (Dec. 2013): Supreme Court strikes down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as Charter breach

Though the law purported to eliminate sex work altogether, and made references to protecting sex workers from harm, neither has happened. Sex workers say the laws have made things worse for them because punishing their clients is akin to punishing them.

In 2014, the Liberals, including then-MP Justin Trudeau, voted against Bill C-36. And a number of MPs and Liberal candidates talked about the need to reform the laws the following year on the campaign trail in 2015.

At a panel in Toronto during that time, Liberal candidate Bill Morneau, who would later become the federal finance minister, said that there was “no disagreement” that Bill-C36 should be repealed.

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“We would want to get rid of this bill,” Morneau said in response to a question about what each party would do about the law. “It’s a bill that puts people in danger, and we would not stand for it.”

After the Liberals formed government, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told reporters that she was “committed” to reviewing prostitution laws, but the issue was quickly dropped and the laws have been in effect ever since.

READ MORE: A chronology of Canadian prostitution laws

And a position put forward in 2018 by the Young Liberals of Canada at the Liberal National Convention called on the party to repeal the sex work laws was not picked up by Liberals and is not mentioned in its 2019 platform.

“Stepping up in favour of sex work decriminalization is not something that seems to get the Liberals votes,” Brenda Cossman, a law professor and director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

But I think it’s pretty appalling that an issue that is so serious and so deeply harmful to so many people is just not an issue that gets votes,” Cossman said. “It’s an issue that is right at the intersection of so many other fundamental public health crises issues — whether it’s murdered and missing Indigenous women, whether it’s the opioid crisis, whether it’s poverty.”

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READ MORE: Who is Terri-Jean Bedford, the dominatrix fighting Canada’s prostitution laws

The statement released this week calling for decriminalization states since 2014, sex workers have reported “increased antagonism with law enforcement, targeted violence and fear of reporting, unwanted and unsolicited police interactions, and targeting of Indigenous, Black, trans, and migrant sex workers, as well as sex workers who use drugs.”

According to Statistics Canada, there were 294 homicides of sex workers between 1991 and 2014. A third of those murders were unsolved as of 2016, more than 10 per cent higher than the unsolved rate for murders that do not involve sex workers.

A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that since C-36 came into effect, the number of cisgender and transgender sex workers in B.C. who were unable to access health services when needed has increased.

One of the calls for justice in the final report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women released earlier this year asks governments to “support programs and services for Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people in the sex industry to promote their safety and security.”

Cossman pointed to page 45 of the Liberal platform under the heading Sexual and Reproductive Health. The platform states, “We believe that women have the right to make all decisions about their own bodies — full stop.” The platform then links this to a women’s right to access an abortion, but for Cossman, it’s a sign of inconsistency on the issue of sex work.

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“It is absolutely not ‘full stop,'” Cossman said. “If they really meant that women have the right to make all decisions about their bodies, then women ought to be able to make the decision to sell sex for money in a consensual context.”

A spokesperson for the Liberal Party did not answer questions about the party’s stance on the Harper-era sex work laws and whether a re-elected Liberal government would reform them.

“The Liberal Party remains committed to ensuring that all of our criminal laws are effective in meeting their objectives, promote public safety and security, and are consistent with our constitutionally protected rights,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

“A re-elected Liberal government will continue to be committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system respects victims, and holds offenders to account.”

READ MORE: Sex work laws around the world

Sandra Wesley, executive director of Montreal sex work advocacy group Stella, said that there was a lot of hope when the Liberals formed government in 2015 that the laws would change. But, she speculates that other issues such as cannabis legalization took precedence.

“You can’t be the party of weed and whores. You have to pick one,” Wesley told Global News. “There is a sense from all parties, not just the Liberals, that it’s easy to say that they support sex workers’ rights but the action behind it never seems to materialize.”

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Wesley said that the impacts of Bill C-36 are wide-ranging.

“It’s every sphere of the industry,” she said. This includes sex workers who work on the streets who now have to act very quickly when interacting with a client over fears of getting caught by law enforcement. They may not notice, or ignore, warning signs.

“In the past, we would take the time to negotiate with the client before getting in their car,” Wesley said. “When we talk about price, we talk about location, we would talk about all those things, and take a look around, get a sense of safety, and then get in the car. Nowadays, because clients are afraid of getting arrested, we need to just jump into the car as fast as we can.”

READ MORE: Majority of Ontarians oppose any change to current prostitution laws

And for those who work from their homes, Wesley said people are getting evicted for having clients over. She also pointed to recent efforts by Montreal police to encourage taxi drivers and hotel employees to report sex workers to police as an example of how the issue of human trafficking, in which people are forced into the sex industry against their will, is conflated with consensual sex trafficking.

“This is done under the guise of fighting exploitation, which is a vague term that seems to [suggest that] all sex workers are victims of exploitation,” she said.

Activists who are fighting against the existence of sex work have figured out a long time ago that mixing up sex work and trafficking is a very effective strategy to justify police repression to justify laws that are more repressive.”

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READ MORE: Trudeau Liberals face calls to be more progressive on drug policy, prostitution

When asked about the party’s stance on decriminalization or sex work law reform, a Conservative Party spokesperson pointed Global News to leader Andrew Scheer’s statements on human trafficking in May, in which he promised to tackle the issue.

“A Conservative government under my leadership will ensure that prosecutors have the strongest laws behind them to keep human traffickers off our streets and away from survivors and those they seek to harm,” Sheer said at the time.

So far, the Green Party is the only major party to make a specific platform promise on sex work. Under the heading “Protecting Sex Workers,” the party states it supports labour rights for sex workers “to ensure that they are able to control their working conditions, conduct business in a safe and healthy environment, and have recourse to legal remedies when these conditions are not provided.”

It also said that it will “reform sex work laws in Canada with a clear focus on harm reduction, given the dangers that sex trade workers face.”

Though there’s no mention of sex work in the NDP platform, a party spokesperson told Global News that party leader Jagmeet Singh “has always been committed to engaging and listening to sex workers about their lived experience, and to involve them in decisions that will impact them.”

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The spokesperson did not mention regulation or decriminalization of the industry, but added that the NDP would review and update laws “to ensure they protect, not stigmatize, sex workers.”

Wesley said that for many people, the idea of rights for sex workers might seem “frivolous” or something that affects a very small proportion of the Canadian population.

“The concept of human rights is based on this idea that even if we’re a minority of people, then we still should have access to all those rights and to privacy and dignity,” she said. “It does have an impact on all women in the conversations we’re having around consent, around sexual assaults, around gender-based violence.”