How not to protect the lives of sex trade workers

Elizabeth May

The ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada was pretty clear in the Bedford case. The laws were preventing women (and men) in the business of selling sex from being unacceptably vulnerable to violence and murder.  We only need to remember the horrors of the Pickton hog farm to know that we were systematically failing the most marginal in our society.  The Supreme Court told Parliament to fix our laws to keep sex trade workers safe.

Instead, Bill C-36 makes their lives more precarious than before the Bedford decision. 

A few points need to be stressed:  The trade in human misery known as “human trafficking” is vile and must end.  We need to step up criminal resources, social programmes, and help for those who have, essentially, been enslaved.  That is why I am a donor to the Joy Smith Foundation.  The foundation, and my friend Joy Smith, do important work to rescue those who have been ensnared in this modern-day slave trade.

While it is true that there is some overlap between prostitution and human trafficking, the legal remedies are separate and distinct.  It is by conflating them that we end up with the idea that we can protect people from human trafficking by criminalizing prostitution. 

We do need greater investment in addiction counselling.  We need more robust funding for social services to help those driven to prostitution by economic deprivation.  The Green Party’s call for a Guaranteed Liveable Income would be a huge benefit and would ensure that extreme poverty did not rob children of good beginnings.

But C-36 sets out to end prostitution.  As pro C-36 witness Eric Jolliffe, the Chief of Police for the York Regional Police, testified at committee:

 "We appreciate the government's efforts to abolish prostitution."

As if such a thing were possible.  There is a reason it is referred to as the world’s oldest profession.  And it is by increasing the criminalization of the business of being in the sex trade that the bill fails to meet the challenge that was put before us by the Supreme Court: protect the lives of women by not driving the activity (no matter how much our moral compass might wish it eradicated) into increasingly dangerous shadows. 

On June 12th, my friend, and near seatmate in the House, Sean Casey of Charlottetown, gave a very clear analysis.  I am reproducing part of his speech from Hansard here:

“Sadly, Bill C-36 has as much, or more, in common with the prohibitionist approach in force in Albania, Croatia and Russia.

“In Russia, brothels are illegal. Under Bill C-36, they would also be illegal in Canada. In Russia, living on the avails of prostitution is illegal. Under Bill C-36, this would also be illegal in Canada. In Russia, buying sex is illegal. Under Bill C-36, this would also be illegal in Canada.

“In Russia, selling sex is illegal. Under Bill C-36, except for a few narrow exceptions, it will also be illegal in Canada. Selling sex will be illegal in public, it will be illegal near places where children may be, and it will be illegal with underage prostitutes. The differences between the Russian approach and this so-called made-in-Canada approach are relatively minor. I wonder if those present find it somewhat troubling that a country with Russia's human rights record has a regime governing this social issue that is so close to the legislation before the House today.”

I turned to him when he finished his speech and asked if we had now created, not a “Made in Canada” approach, but a “Made in Moscow” approach.  Not the Nordic model, not the New Zealand model, but the Putin approach, with the add-on of an inadequate fund of $20 million to help prostitutes leave the work of selling sex.  All the while flying directly in the face of evidence and of the clear Charter imperative to keep the bill constitutional.  Like many bills before it that have been forced through the House, C-36 will fail before the Supreme Court of Canada.  By then, I fear that the cynical political operatives who have crafted C-36 – not to meet the challenge of the court, but to create yet another divisive wedge issue – will have used the bill as an election tactic.  For the first time, I believe the Conservative political machine is prepared to take the chance on women dying so that they can drive more votes their way.

For shame.