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Sex worker groups denied intervenor status in Supreme Court case

Maggie's, POWER and others can't speak to the court, but Christian groups will

Lara Purvis (left) and Frédérique Chabot hold POWER's banner in Ottawa. Credit: Xtra file photo.
Seven organizations advocating for sex workers in Canada and around the world have been denied the right to intervene in the Supreme Court case that will decide on the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws despite their direct experience dealing with the laws in question and the impact the court’s decision will have on their members’ lives.

The Supreme Court announced on April 30 that three Canadian sex-worker groups — POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist), Maggie’s (based in Toronto), and Stella (based in Montreal) — would be denied leave to intervene, as would three international sex-worker groups — Scarlet Alliance-Australian Sex Workers Association, New Zealand Prostitutes Collective Trust, and Rosea-Riksorganisationen För Sex & Erotikarbetare (based in Sweden) — and the Feminist Coalition, a Canadian association of anti-violence groups that provide frontline services to sex workers. As is customary, the Supreme Court gave no reason for its decision.

The seven groups are all advocating against Canada’s sex-work laws and are the only groups denied intervenor status by the court. Several other groups opposed to the law were granted status, but sex-worker advocates are outraged that the court is refusing to hear from groups with direct knowledge of the impact of the current laws.

“It’s extremely enraging,” says Émilie Laliberté, a spokesperson for Stella. “It’s outrageous that an organization like Maggie’s that offers services to sex workers in Ontario, and POWER, which has existed for 16 years and reaches out to more than 5,000 sex workers per year, are being denied the opportunity to speak on how the laws are affecting their lives.”

Among pro-decriminalization groups given leave to appeal are the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence, Pivot Legal Society, the BC Civil Liberties Association, Native Women’s Association of Canada, and several national and regional HIV/AIDS, feminist and anti-violence organizations.

However, the court has also allowed several Christian and conservative organizations without experience dealing with sex work to intervene in the case, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Civil Rights League, REAL Women of Canada and the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution.

“We know their agenda regarding sex work, and they don’t reach out to sex workers. They don’t know what it’s like to be criminalized and put into jail,” Laliberté says.

Amy Lebovitch, one of the plaintiffs in the case, remains optimistic.

“I’m not worried that it’s a bad sign for the case, but it’s a big missed opportunity for the court to hear from more sex workers,” she says.

Sex work is not illegal in Canada. Instead, the Criminal Code bans running a “bawdyhouse,” “living off the avails” of prostitution, and communicating for the purposes of prostitution, effectively pushing the sex trade underground and into what sex workers say are dangerous conditions.

The Ontario Superior Court struck down those three provisions of the Criminal Code as unconstitutional in 2010. The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed with most of that decision in 2012 but also upheld the ban on communicating. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from both the government – which wants all the laws reinstated – and the sex workers, who want the communication law scrapped, on June 13.