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Conservatives will appeal Ontario sex work decision

'This issue is about rights for sex workers,' says NDP's Libby Davies

NDP MP Libby Davies

UPDATE, SEPT 30, 3PM: Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced Wednesday that the federal government will appeal the Ontario Superior Court’s prostitution decision, and opposition MPs came out swinging.

“With barely batting an eye, the government is now ready to plunge into a very costly appeal of this significant decision that was handed down by the Ontario court,” NDP MP Libby Davies says. “This is money that could be invested in actually helping sex workers, protecting their rights, helping with exit strategies where it’s necessary.

“I just find a very typical response of the Conservatives to rush into an appeal when they’ve barely even considered the decision — I think it’s a very ill advised move.”

“We deplore the fact that the Conservative government, when it came to power in 2006, did not actually enact the policy that the then-Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, had put into place to deal with this whole issue in order not to leave a policy vacuum in place,” says Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings.

While Jennings says the government has the legal right to appeal, that process will take time, during which they could undertake the kinds of stakeholder consultations that Cotler had prepared, but the Conservatives did not enact when they came to power.

“The Conservatives left a policy vacuum in place for five years, which allowed sex trade workers who are victims to continue to be victimized, our children and our women to continue to be exploited, and those sex trade workers who wished to be in that particular legal activity not to be able to ensure their own safety,” Jennings says.

“Even the Conservatives on the special parliamentary committee [in 2006] that we had agreed that the status quo that we had wasn’t working,” Davies adds. “Clearly these laws are harmful, particularly for example the communicating law.”

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the House of Commons that, “prostitution is a problem that harms individuals and communities,” and that he was pleased to announce that the government would appeal and seek a stay of the decision.

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SEPT 28: The Harper government is “seriously considering” an appeal of an Ontario court decision that struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, even though the judge ruled that those laws endanger the lives of sex workers.

On the opposition benches, NDP MP Libby Davies is heartened by the Ontario court ruling. Davies was part of a special parliamentary committee on the issue of sex laws.

“Yesterday we had the naming of the commissioner for the public inquiry in Vancouver for the missing women,” Davies says. “These are related issues — what happens to women who are on the street who are involved in the sex trade, and the risks that they’re at. This is something that can’t just be swept under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Davies hopes it means that Parliament will go back to the sex laws committee’s 2006 report. That report was generally panned by gay activists and sex workers as disappointing and lacking substance. Conservative members of the committee viewed prostitution as violence and rejected calls for decriminalization.

“We have to have the courage to look at this court decision,” Davies says. “This issue is about rights for sex workers, protecting their safety, making sure that they don’t face violence and that they’re not placed in very vulnerable positions because of the law, which is what’s been happening. We’ve got to get away from this idea that somehow they’re non-citizens or that they don’t have the same rights as other people.”

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has issued a press release stating, “The Government is very concerned about the Superior Court’s decision and is seriously considering an appeal. The decision was stayed for 30 days. The Government of Canada is committed to the health and safety of all Canadians and the well-being of our communities. We will fight to ensure that the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to both communities and the prostitutes themselves, along with other vulnerable persons.”

NDP Leader Jack Layton spoke to the issue in a scrum on Tuesday. “Now it means that a conversation will have to happen amongst Canadians about the best way forward, to the extent that the existing laws were exposing women to danger,” says Layton.

“We’ve also got to deal with the organized crime dimension to prostitution in Canada, and that requires laws.”

Layton feels that this will probably mean some form of decriminalization, though he says the debate will have many facets.

“There will be questions of morality, no doubt, discussed, and the abuse of women is a moral issue,” Layton says. “Violence against women is a moral issue, so that’s going to have to be discussed as a part of this.”

Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings has said that she will hold off on issuing a position until she has had the time to study the ruling as well as other reports on the issue, including the 2006 sex laws committee report.

“I will be looking at each report which has been produced by the House of Commons, by the Senate if there are any, by standing committees, and by my own Liberal Women’s Caucus in order to look at what has actually been done, what’s been studied, what’s the scientific evidence, and then I’ll be able to make an informed recommendation to my caucus as to what position we should have,” Jennings says.