OTTAWA - The federal Conservative government will try to abolish the sex trade through criminalizing the purchase of sex by “johns” and not those selling sex, all the while trying to persuade prostitutes to quit selling their bodies.
It sets a high penalty for the act of obtaining sexual services for a fee, which could carry a punishment of up to five years, or fines of $1,000 to $4,000, with more severe penalties in cases where the exchange happens in public places, in parks or near schools.
But in an unexpected twist, the bill would also partially target those who’d sell sex in public places “where children could reasonably be expected to be present,” said Justice Minister Peter MacKay. It also targets anyone who advertises the sale of sex online, so that those who “profit from” prostitution services would be captured.
Inspired by similar laws in Scandinavian countries known as the Nordic model, MacKay called his approach “a Canadian model.”
He says it amounts to a “substantive and comprehensive plan” that addresses not only “community protection, but protection of vulnerable people,” and that it recognizes “the inherent dangers associated with prostitution, including many of the other real challenges in the country, including poverty, violence, addiction, mental health.”
MacKay said his legislation is accompanied by “programming aimed at helping women exit — predominantly women — exit prostitution.”
MacKay tabled the bill Wednesday, nearly six months after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down as unconstitutional three other criminal laws first brought in by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.
The high court’s Bedford ruling said Canada’s laws against communicating for the purposes of buying or selling sex, keeping or attending a brothel, and living on the avails of prostitution were overly broad. By barring women from being able to work at safe houses indoors or hiring drivers or bodyguards, the laws forced them onto streets, or into furtive exchanges that prevented them from screening for “bad dates,” the court said. By creating conditions that risked the health and safety of vulnerable women, the laws were declared a breach of their right to security of the person under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes,” the court said.
Many sex trade workers believe the new laws will be no better.
A report released Tuesday by a coalition of Canadian prostitutes warned the Conservative government that proposals to target the clients will only drive the trade further underground and increase the danger the women face, so would eventually be found unconstitutional.
The Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, along with a group from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside called Sex Workers United Against Violence, cited research results showing that this was the impact after Vancouver police adopted new guidelines that were effectively a Nordic model of law enforcement.
They said when police target clients or places where prostitutes work, “the presence of law enforcement makes it harder to earn an income and forces sex workers to take clients or agree to riskier services that they would otherwise refuse due to safety concerns.”
In the Commons, MacKay was challenged about why the Justice Department did not release a public opinion poll it commissioned of 3,000 Canadians, and instead released only its online consultations.
La Presse newspaper cited a Jan. 13 memo written by Justice Department officials to MacKay which said the opinion poll results that don’t reflect the current policies of the government “may necessitate explanations.”
MacKay told the Commons the poll “will be released in due course.” The Conservatives have required public opinion polls the government commissions to be released within six months, or by July in this case.
Instead, MacKay’s department has pointed to the results of online consultations that elicited more than 30,000 responses. It suggests 56 per cent of respondents supported criminal penalties for the purchase of sex, while 66 per cent believed the sellers of sexual services should not be subject to the criminal law.
The federal government summarized international approaches to prostitution in three ways:
• Decriminalization/legalization: Seeks to reduce the harms associated with prostitution by decriminalizing both the purchase and sale of sexual services, and regulating the way in which prostitution takes place (implemented in Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia).
• Prohibition: Seeks to eradicate prostitution through the prohibition of both the purchase and sale of sexual services, as well as the involvement of third parties in prostitution (implemented in the U.S., except Nevada).
• Abolition (the “Nordic Model”): Seeks to abolish prostitution through criminalization of those who exploit prostitutes (clients and third parties) and decriminalization of prostitutes themselves, who are viewed as victims of sexual exploitation and assisted through programs (implemented in Sweden, Norway and Iceland).