6 min

Sex workers celebrate Supreme Court ruling

'This is a great day for women, from coast to coast,' says Terri-Jean Bedford

Valerie Scott says sex workers must be brought to the table to help politicians craft new rules to regulate sex work in Canada. Credit: Marcus McCann

"What's my name?" she asks, laughing.

"I'm the Bedford in Bedford vs Canada."

Terri-Jean Bedford, flanked by her compatriots Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, laughed and cracked her riding crop as journalists crowded the victorious front-line soldiers in the war against Canada's laws governing sex work.

In a year, the previous laws will be no more. What will replace them is still unclear. All three major political parties have adopted slightly varying policies of indifference on the future of legislating the world's oldest profession.

But, for the time being, Bedford is ecstatic.

"This is a great day for women, from coast to coast!" she cried as she walked up to the microphone in the lobby of the Supreme Court.

Émilie Laliberté, director general of the Montreal sex-work advocacy group Stella, celebrated the demise of the law as a clear rebuke of the government's stance on sex work.

"This judgment sends a clear message to all the aggressors that the climate of impunity has ended," she said.

At the other end of the country, in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside — where the Supreme Court justices said the federal laws contributed to a culture of fear and danger while Robert Pickton preyed on outcast sex workers — activists are also rejoicing.

"It's a huge victory for all the people in Vancouver — my sisters out there are going to be safe," said Lorna Bird, of Sex Workers United Against Violence, who also intervened on the case.

After the celebration ends, the countdown begins. Next December, sex workers will have the freedom to haggle with and screen their clientele, hire protection staff and operate freely in their own homes.

In the interim, there needs to be some planning.

Alan Young was the chief counsel for the three sex workers. "My work is done; the political battle now begins," he says.

"My role as a constitutional lawyer was to remove a bad law that had constitutional flaws to pave the way for the Parliament of Canada to come up with a better law, and all the relevant stakeholders on every side must come forward and speak to the Government of Canada and get it right," he told journalists on Dec 20.

Lebovitch says that, to get it right, sex workers need to be consulted. "I'd like the federal government to treat us like other workers."

A statement from Justice Minister Peter MacKay would seem to suggest he isn't very open to that idea. He expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision, saying that the government is "exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution, and vulnerable persons."

Following that statement, ex-police officer and current Heritage Minister Shelly Glover spoke to reporters in Winnipeg, vowing that the government would be bringing in legislation as soon as possible to remedy the vacuum that will be opened this time next year.

But just what that will look like remains unclear.

The trio who launched the court case and, ultimately, destroyed Canada's prostitution laws, expressed reservations about how Stephen Harper will tackle the issue. Scott suggested that the best way forward may be to allow municipalities to regulate sex work as they see fit, in a non-criminal manner.

"Politicians, though they may know us as clients, they don't understand how sex work works. They won't be able to write a half-decent law. It will fail. Which is why sex workers must be brought to the table in a real and meaningful way," Scott told reporters.

But all three slammed any idea that Canada would move to adopting the Nordic model — the approach taken by certain Scandinavian countries in criminalizing the act of paying for sex. By criminalizing the johns, they say, the system risks being pushed even further into the dangerous shadows than it is currently.

Some who follow sex-work policy in Canada say that the Nordic model is a logical extension of the Conservatives' stance on sex work.

Noted social conservative backbencher Joy Smith endorsed the Nordic model in a statement released after the decision, saying that it is the only way to rid the world of sex work once and for all.

"I am convinced that the most effective route to tackling prostitution and sex trafficking is to address the demand for commercial sex by targeting the buyers of sex. Countries that have legalized and regulated have seen sexual exploitation, human trafficking and violence towards women and girls increase drastically," she says.

The other parties in the House of Commons have struck cautious tones on how the Tories might regulate the sex industry.

NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin told Xtra that ample consideration needs to be given to the ruling and on exactly what the House should consider to replace the soon-to-be-defunct laws. To that end, she says, Parliament should strike a special committee just to study sex-work legislation. She wouldn't commit her party to any one stance on the matter, noting that there are as many divergent opinions in the party as there are MPs, but she did shy away from a Nordic model and said they would be open to leaving the practice altogether un-legislated from the federal level.

"I doubt that's what the Conservatives would do, because of who they are," she adds.

Boivin says she hopes the government will table legislation as soon as possible so there will be ample time to study and debate the prospective changes. She says that if the Tory legislation does not meet the NDP's standards, they may introduce their own proposal.

The NDP is in an awkward situation — the party's policy has long been nominally in support of decriminalization, yet when it came to the policy convention last year in Montreal, the party ushered a motion introduced by Status of Women critic Niki Ashton to decriminalize sex work into the backrooms, and it has not been seen since. The party still has no formal policy on sex work.

The Liberals are in a similar boat. Carolyn Bennett, critic for aboriginal affairs, fielded her party's stance on the ruling.

"It's huge," she says.

She says that the Liberals could be swayed into supporting a Nordic model but that they will continue to study the issue and will see if they can find some cross-party consensus on how to tackle the issue.

"We've got to make sure that we get this right,” she says.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau initially opened the door to the Nordic model when he spoke to Xtra in April, before he won his party's top job.

"I understand the need to protect sex workers from violence," Trudeau said, noting that he opposed the laws that the Supreme Court struck down today. "So I definitely know that we need to look at our prostitution laws. But the exploitation of women is something I'm very concerned about, so we need to know a little more before we go down that road.”

The Green Party, meanwhile, came out swinging in favour of legalizing sex work.

"This ruling sends a clear message to Parliament that the status quo just isn’t working and that we must take action to support the safety and well-being of sex workers in Canada,” Green Leader Elizabeth May said in a statement.

The Green Party supports a legalized and regulated sex trade.

But while activists celebrated and the parties wrung their hands, sex work abolitionists — those opposed to prostitution on the basis that it's exploitative of women — unloaded on the Supreme Court's stark decision.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada expressed its disappointment in the decision, its president saying publicly, “Canada should be a place that promotes and defends the dignity of all persons. The commodification of sex, which inevitably results in abuse and exploitation, should not be tolerated.” The organization submitted a report to the government, advocating for strict regulations to discourage sex work.

REAL Women of Canada, a socially conservative feminist group, lambasted the decision and the Supreme Court judges in a statement, saying that it "certainly is no longer a court of last resort but rather is a court of interim opinion."

In an assertion that will no doubt prove controversial in the sex-work activist community, the organization wrote that the decriminalization should not be left to stand, as "we know what happened on the Pickton farm in BC, where the police created a de facto zone of tolerance for prostitution and this led to lawlessness, the freedom to pick up women, and led to their deaths."

That criticism of the decision notwithstanding, the ruling will have a huge impact on how sex workers go about their business in the future.

"Now we can work in our legal occupation in a legal manner," a beaming Scott said in the Supreme Court foyer. "We will be able to work with CRA with occupational health and safety, workers compensation. Pension plans — yes! We cannot even believe that this happened."

The three victors from today's case laughed and posed for pictures with court-watchers and journalists.

Bedford brandished her riding crop as she stood in front of the cameras.


With files from Shauna Lewis.