Justice minister Peter MacKay called the bill a "uniquely Canadian response." Image via WikiMedia Commons.
It was in 2007 that a case challenging Canada's prostitution laws as unconstitutional was initiated. After the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the laws criminalizing pimping, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and running a brothel, the federal government was given a year to come up with new ones.
Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was unveiled on Wednesday. Justice minister Peter MacKay calls it a "uniquely Canadian response" that understands prostitution to be "a very complex social issue."
Indeed women's groups and advocates have been debating the issue of prostitution and the best way forward for years.
A key aspect of the proposed legislation is that it addresses demand and targets those doing the exploiting. MacKay said in a press conference that "the emphasis is on targeting the consumers while at the same time helping women exit prostitution."
The new legislation would criminalize buying sex as well as profiting from those who sell sex. It also prohibits advertising sexual services unless a person is advertising their own services. The bill responds to concerns brought up during the Bedford case in ensuring that those with "non-exploitative" relationships (meaning family members, spouses, cab drivers, etc.) to those selling sex will not be criminalized.
Despite what could be viewed as a positive step forward in terms of addressing the way in which the prostitution industry impacts vulnerable women in particular, some advocates are disappointed with the approach.
Hilla Kerner, a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter told VICE over the phone that while "it's useful that the proposed law begins to recognize the harm in prostitution, we are critical of the fact that it doesn't fully address the compounding inequalities of race, class, and gender in prostitution."
One aspect of the tabled bill that Cherry Smiley, co-founder of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI), found troubling is that it would criminalize communicating for the purposes of prostitution in a public place "where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present."
Trisha Baptie, a prostitution survivor and activist, agrees. "I have guarded optimism," she says. "This is a huge stride in terms of criminalizing demand but if there's anything on the books that could mean prostituted women face charges, that's concerning."
While the communication aspect of the bill is limited to locations where children might be present, it remains a fairly broad definition. Janine Benedet, lawyer for the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, an intervener in the Bedford case, is worried that this will apply primarily to women on the street, many whom are Aboriginal.
"It continues to provide a hook for police to push them around to different neighbourhoods and to target the women," she says. If the purpose of the bill is to help vulnerable women, advocates say that offence should be dropped.
"If we really believe that women in prostitution are overwhelmingly exploited and coerced into prostitution through poverty, sexism, and racism, the location of where they are being exploited should not determine whether or not we criminalize them," Benedet says.
As part of the bill, the federal government has committed $20 million in funding to both grassroots organizations that deal with vulnerable women and to exiting services for those who wish to leave the industry. This is a central aspect of the Nordic model of law, which was successfully implemented in Sweden in 1999 and criminalizes pimps and johns while decriminalizing prostitutes. The Nordic model also works with police to reeducate them and teach them to treat prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.
Baptie says she feels hopeful that Canada's proposed legislation could enable prostituted women to develop better relationships with the police. "If prostituted women aren't breaking the law, there's nothing holding them back from approaching the police if they need help."
Benedet says what's good about the bill is that "there's a direct criminalization of sex purchasing which sends a clear message that buying women is not acceptable."
Smiley is disappointed that "the door is still left open to criminalize the most vulnerable" but says "what's great is that we can see the public beginning to shift in terms of how they view prostitution."
The bill has been tabled which means it will have to go through all the regular processes before passing the Senate and being proclaimed into law—all before a deadline of December 20, when the stay in the Bedford decision expires.
In the meantime, Benedet says, "it's very important for women's groups to make their voices heard—both in terms of what they'd like to see modified and also to pressure opposition parties to back those parts of the bill that advance women's equality and to oppose those that don't."
"Best case scenario is that the law is applied to the pimps and johns and the police really try to make violence against women and girls a priority," Smiley says.
The bill states that the Parliament of Canada "has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it." It also "recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity"—both of which are very positive steps forward in terms of addressing gender inequality and violence against women. But what happens next, Kerner says, in terms of how the laws are implemented, will be the real test.