Vancouver sex workers say the federal government should seek their advice as it considers changes to the Criminal Code following the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling that struck down several prostitution laws as overly broad.
The court repeatedly found that the laws put sex workers in jeopardy, violating Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects Canadians from laws that threaten their life, liberty and security.
The federal government has until the end of 2014 to pass new laws on sex work. On Feb 17 it launched an online consultation to ask Canadians for their input and, on March 3, the Department of Justice announced it had held “a consultation with a number of stakeholder representatives to seek their views and input.”
“Our government is consulting not only with all Canadians, but also with representatives from a cross-section of interest groups, to seek their views and input to inform our response to prostitution,” Minister of Justice and Attorney General Peter MacKay said in a news release. “The government is taking action to maintain the safety of our streets and communities by ensuring that a legislative response truly reflects Canadian values.”
Professional dominatrix Velvet Steele, 28-year veteran sex worker Susan Davis, and Joyce Arthur, a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization, say it’s time for a national conversation. But Steele is skeptical that the government will listen.
“They already have it in their framework as to what they want to do,” she says. “I’m hesitant to believe there will be a listening process going on here.”
Davis says that sex workers are making submissions to encourage change but that she, too, has a “horrible, sick feeling that we’re going to wind up where we were.”
In a Feb 5 letter to MacKay, Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan said new laws should target the people buying sex while helping sex-trade workers get addiction counselling, mental-health services and training to get out of the trade.
Swan says in the letter that the “essence of the Nordic model is not to make it illegal for a person to sell their sexual services but to make it a criminal offence to purchase sexual services or to procure sexual services for another person.”
But sex workers and advocates say such a move would continue to keep sex work criminalized while endangering sex workers and denying them safe working conditions.
“What would be the point of criminalizing the client?” Steele asks. “It would be invalidating the fact it is work.”
Criminalizing clients means those clients would seek to lure sex workers into dark and dangerous places so they won’t be caught by police, she adds. “It’s just another area that is unsafe.”
Davis wants all provisions related to prostitution in the Criminal Code removed.
Arthur agrees. “Any kind of criminal law is going to infringe on the rights of sex workers,” she says.
“If they pass a criminal law, especially a Swedish-type model, it’s going to get challenged,” she says. “The sex workers in Sweden are still operating under a criminal environment.”
Steele has already sent a submission to the government and is encouraging others, both in the sex work community and allies, to do so, too.
She says the notion that income from sex work is invalid needs to shift.
“All this trying to tell people what to do with their bodies is nonsense,” she says. “Just ask us. Hear me out. Give me a voice.”
She says the government should be looking at changing labour laws to include sex work, giving workers the chance to receive the Canada Pension Plan, insurance, medical and dental benefits.
Davis wants to see standards for sex work implemented and information about workspaces created for workers. She suggests occupational health and safety guidelines could be created, too.
She also suggests that changes need to start at the municipal level, where zoning and work permits are considered.
Two days before the high court paved the way toward possibly decriminalizing sex work, Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion to accept recommendations intended to increase safety and services for sex workers here.
The report, prepared by the city’s Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation Task Force, acknowledged work already underway on support services, exit strategies, housing, bylaws, training and services for youth; examined recommendations from the Missing Women inquiry; and presented recommendations of its own.
Steele says the recommendations put the city out in front of the country. But, she points out, the city had to go through the very public process of the Pickton serial killer case to arrive at that point.
Arthur suggests addressing sex work on a local or regional basis, rather than federally. “Why not leave it up to the provinces or the municipalities to regulate sex work?” she asks.
She says communities should work together to figure out what regulations would work.
“It would be best if the federal government bowed out entirely,” she says, adding the government could perhaps create guidelines for local implementation.
The women also expressed dismay at the ongoing push in some quarters to focus on exit strategies for those in sex work. Steele says there’s a need to determine if people are getting into or out of the work for themselves.
“We need to analyze if entry is their own decision or someone else’s,” she says. “‘Exiting to a healthier lifestyle is a value judgment.”
Davis adds, “I don’t need rescuing.”