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Sex-work bill expected to get Senate approval soon

Further amendments to Bill C-36 unlikely before Senate passage

Terri-Jean Bedford warned senators that she’ll continue to fight the new legislation, just as she did Canada’s previous sex laws, which the Supreme Court of Canada declared void in December 2013. Credit: Marcus McCann

The Conservative government is looking to get its controversial new prostitution bill passed by the Senate and made into law within the coming weeks.

The Senate is expected to pass Bill C-36 without amendment by November, having already conducted an early study of the bill, making another round of committee hearings unnecessary.

Canada’s existing laws on prostitution were declared void by the Supreme Court of Canada last December after the court ruled the laws were overly broad and jeopardized rather than protected sex workers. The court gave the government a year to replace the laws or stop criminalizing prostitution. The Conservatives wasted no time, introducing the new legislation in June and shortening debate to keep it on schedule.

While the bill has received near-universal condemnation from the sex-work community, it’s been supported by a number of feminist organizations, harm-reduction centres and women’s shelters.

“They’re repeating the same mistakes of the past but in a different version,” says Sarah Leamon of PACE, a group that works with street-level sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Leamon is particularly concerned about the continued criminalization of communicating in “public” with potential clients, which will undermine their ability to screen johns before leaving with them.

“What we hear from members of the sex-worker community, especially survivor and outdoor sex workers, time and time again — that period that they require in order to screen clients is critical to their safety,” she told Xtra in June.

Terri-Jean Bedford, the self-proclaimed “dominatrix on trial” and lead applicant in the move to quash the old laws, came before the committee in late September to vow that sex workers would not let C-36 stand.

“If I decide to go back into business, I’m going to do it anyway, and I’m going to wind up back here 10 years later,” Bedford told the senators. “I won. Remember that. Fifteen judges. What makes you think you’re any brighter than 15 judges?”

Bedford was referring to the cost associated with mounting the prolonged legal challenges against the legislation. She, and the others who vowed to take the bill down, acknowledge that it could take the better part of a decade to have the case come back before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Alan Young, the law professor who represented Bedford and successfully argued his case in court, also came before the committee to warn the senators about “repeating the mistakes of history.” The new law won’t hold up to scrutiny this time, either, he predicted. He, too, cited its communication provisions, which make it illegal to solicit a client in certain public areas, for instance near schools, as “clearly unconstitutional.”

Though the government softened the bill’s original ban on communicating anywhere that children could be expected to be, the change did little to satisfy critics, who say outlawing any communication for the purpose of prostitution will continue to put sex workers at risk.

Still, that amendment will likely be the bill’s last. Given that the Senate has not appeared keen on any further changes, it’s a near certainty that the legislation — debate for which began in the Senate in early October — will pass as is, leaving a wide array of activities central to sex work against the law in Canada.