When Bill C-36—a law that criminalized the purchasing rather than the sale of sex—came into effect in Canada in 2014, ripples were felt throughout the sex work industry. The bill was heavily criticized for putting sex workers in danger, despite the former Conservative government promoting the bill as being sex worker-friendly (by targeting clients instead of escorts). The Trudeau government, while pledging that they'd reexamine the issue, has yet to do anything concrete.
Last year, media coverage of Ontario's sex trafficking industry put the government into overdrive. According to a committee that was set up to examine the issue, Ontario has become a "major" hub for sex trafficking in Canada. Nationwide, there are currently 330 identified sex trafficking cases by the RCMP. For each victim, traffickers are reportedly able to bring in between $168,000 and $336,000 a year through selling their services. Currently, hard statistics around sex trafficking in the province don't exist, but the Wynne government is slated to have a full platform for addressing the issue by June.
To some sex workers, however, the direction that sex trafficking law is taking is worrying. While many sex workers acknowledge that sex trafficking is a real issue, they also feel the government is playing fast and loose with the definition—promoting the conflation that sex work is non-consensual or somehow wrong, and, in the process, pushing the industry further underground.
Last month, Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Laurie Scott introduced the "Saving the Girl Next Door Act" to Queen's Park—a bill that, in Scott's words, allows victims of sex trafficking to "fight back" against abusers. Scott told VICE that the law, while able to target a variety of cases, mainly focuses on those of child sex abuse, and that the government has "no interest" in going after consenting sex workers.
Through what the bill calls "protection orders," victims, their families (if the victim is underage), and/or authorities would be able to go after "pimps" and "providers" for both criminal and punitive damages. The law would also make it so that those convicted under the new legislation would have to register as sex offenders, via a change made to Christopher's Law, the province's sex offenders registry.
Scott claims that the bill is just one part of an effort to create a support network for victims of sex trafficking, adding that the province needs "sensitively-trained" legal and judicial services that are receptive to the needs of victims.
"The people that are in prostitution of their own free will, that is their business. This issue is about children predominantly that are making no money. The pimp makes all the money. This is completely different [from sex work]. This is coercion. This is modern-day slavery."
Scott's private member's bill has passed second reading last month and has now entered the committee phase. Being that it's an opposition bill, it's unlikely to pass as is. However, the bill was given a symbolic nod of support from Premier Kathleen Wynne, with her noting that the legislation will likely be incorporated into the province's framework to fight sex trafficking that is expected in June.
While it's unclear exactly what the Ontario Liberals' plan will include, there are some clues as to what direction the government is going—and to some sex workers, it's not looking good. Amid pressure from critics last December, Wynne made a commitment to take a comprehensive approach to combatting sex trafficking—a strategy that will likely follow up on suggestions to create a dedicated task force to hunt down and prosecute providers of sexual services.
Tracy MacCharles, Ontario's Minister of Women's Issues, told VICE that the points brought up by Scott are "very important," and that the pending review in June will be incorporating a number of different perspectives—which include consultations with sex work advocacy groups.
While MacCharles couldn't directly comment on fear that a potential task force could be used against sex workers, she did say that the idea of federal decriminalization of sex work—which has been tabled as a possibility by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould—is something that may be taken into account when drafting new legislation.
"I can't imagine we'll move forward on this work without checking in with [sex worker groups] about these sorts of issues. There's a lot of views on this, but at the end of the day, we have to find what the problem we're trying to solve is and get to the core of it."
What worries many sex workers and sex work advocates is the loose language that surrounds current legislation targeting the trafficking of young men and women. Heather Jarvis, a sex worker rights activist and member of Safe Harbour Outreach Program (SHOP) in St. John's, says that the continued portrayal of sex workers as victims is extremely harmful and exposes them to more danger than is necessary.
"We're already at a really dangerous place in Canada where sex workers who are Indigenous women, sex workers who are drug users, sex workers who work at the street level, have been saying that the laws are harmful," Jarvis told VICE.
"They've been saying that these laws bring a lot of danger into their lives, and the response from the government has been, Nope, we know what's good for you, and we're going to tell you what your life is like."
While activists like Jarvis acknowledge the reality of sex trafficking in Ontario, the general consensus among sex workers is that well intentioned legislation is often used by authorities to target consenting sex workers. Although laws like Saving the Girl Next Door are created expressly to target sex traffickers, the protection orders still enable police to make the decision about whether they lump sex work agencies in with that definition. That, in itself, is a problem to many sex workers who chose this field as their career voluntarily—they could end up in jail. And this fear of overzealous enforcement is felt most acutely by migrant sex workers.
Not only do migrant sex workers face the threat of deportation—six sex workers from the migrant sex worker group Butterfly were deported last December—but the fear of going to law enforcement for help leaves many more susceptible to violent situations.
In January, the murder of Tammy Le—an Asian sex worker who was found strangled to death inside a Hamilton hotel—sparked outrage in the sex work community. Chanelle Gallant, co-director of the Migrant Sex Worker Project (MSWP), says that clamp down on sex trafficking are the same kind of laws that effectively force sex workers into hiding and, ultimately, expose migrants to the kind of violence that may have led to Le's death.
"The most pressing concern facing migrant sex workers in Canada is violence," she told VICE.
The Ontario government, while tight-lipped on the exact details of the plan, is expected to reveal their framework for combatting sex trafficking in June.
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