(Canadian OH&S News) — Representatives on both sides of the prostitution debate are concerned about legislation related to the sex trade that is being proposed by the federal government.
The proposed Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, announced by Minister of Justice Peter MacKay on June 4, is a response to the December Supreme Court decision Canada v. Bedford, which found that three Criminal Code provisions contravened the constitutional right to security of the person.
“It is going to be incredibly harmful to sex workers in the same way that the legislation that was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada was incredibly harmful to sex workers,” Pivot Legal Society lawyer Katrina Pacey said of the act.
“What we had hoped would happen with the case is that we would see a shift in Canada away from criminal law as the means of regulating safe work and a shift towards occupational health and safety standards and employment measures to really ensure safety and well-being in the workplace. What we’ve seen is the opposite of that,” Pacey added.
The legislation proposes new offences related to the exchange of money for sexual services. This includes prohibiting the purchase of sexual services and communicating for that purpose; profiting from the prostitution of others; advertising the sale of others’ sexual services; and communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places where a child could reasonably be expected to be present.
The act also proposes amendments to various offences such as: increasing the current maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment to 14 years for recruiting or harbouring another person for the purposes of prostitution; increasing the maximum penalty for purchasing sexual services from children to 10 years imprisonment from the current five years; and increasing the penalties for two child trafficking offences.
Aboriginal Legal Services lawyer Christa Big Canoe argued that the bill would not stand up to scrutiny as it raises the same constitutional questions as the Bedford decision. She was particularly concerned that sex workers would now be charged for certain actions.
“The new legislation will push workers back into corners and dark spots,” she said. “You’ll have continued incarceration, institutionalization, of particularly the most marginalized, which are the survival workers.”
Meanwhile, Janine Benedet, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law, called the legislation a “mixed bag.” However, she is pleased with the provisions prohibiting pimping and profiteering from sex. “I’m glad to see that there is just a straightforward criminalization of demand for prostitution of purchase with a statement in the objectives that reducing demand is one of the goals of the legislation.”
In response to safety concerns, the government argued the sex trade will always be risky. “No model will ever make prostitution a safe activity — this is an inherently dangerous activity. Recent international studies show that jurisdictions that have decriminalized or legalized prostitution have higher rates of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Our government believes this is unacceptable,” said Paloma Aguilar, MacKay’s press secretary, adding that the legislation was crafted after a consultation process, which included more than 31,000 online responses.
That process has been criticized for its methods, which involved participants voluntarily completing an online survey.
Along with the legislation, the government has also announced $20 million in funding to assist those wishing to leave the sex trade.
Michelle Audette, president of The Native Women’s Association of Canada, wondered who would be able to apply for those funds. “I think the Aboriginal affairs ministry needs to play a key role in that, because we had that national public inquiry for missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”
Assisting sex workers who want to exit the trade is a positive goal, said Big Canoe, but it’s not enough. She suggested that some women are in the sex trade to survive and that spending money on housing, the economy and job training would be a better use of funds.
“It’s the social issues that can’t be solved through a justice lens,” Big Canoe said. “But we keep trying to force it through a justice lens instead of trying to assist in a more holistic way.”
Sex worker groups and human rights and women’s rights organizations across Canada held a national day of action on June 14 to denounce the proposed Bill C-36.