Justin Trudeau’s Throne Speech Makes No Mention of Reforming Unsafe Sex Work Laws

While the government claims it will launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and work on policies to curb violence against women, not a word was said about the laws putting sex workers in danger.

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Dec 7 2015, 6:48pm

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in regards to his party's throne speech, in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. Photo courtesy The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

Despite a lot of talk about honouring Indigenous peoples and creating policies to combat sexual assault, not a word was said about sex work laws in the Liberals' throne speech Friday.

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould have said the laws need to be revisited, but so far, it seems no actual steps in that direction have been taken.

For background: The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which was once known as Bill C-36, came into effect last year under the Harper government. While the sale of sexual services is still technically legal under these laws, it is illegal to buy them, advertise for them, or sell them in areas that might reasonably be near someone under the age of 18, or "near" a school. In effect, there are plenty of ways one can get arrested while selling services under these laws.

Sex workers, academics, and politicians have decried the laws as unsafe, relegating sex workers to the dingy corners of society where they cannot conduct business in an open way. This makes workers more vulnerable to violence.

Many sex workers call for decriminalization as a safer model. That way, they can choose to work together or independently, advertise as they see fit, and have the most control over the services they sell—and to whom.

Sex worker advocacy groups have been making these points clear for years, prior to the Terri-Jean Bedford case making its way to court. Yet while the government claims in the speech from the throne that it will launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, provide "greater support for survivors of domestic and sexual assault," and make life easier for immigrants in Canada, it makes no reference to addressing laws that demonstrably harm all of these groups.

VICE Canada Reports: The New Era of Canadian Sex Work

Make no mistake: it's great to see that an inquiry into well over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women is finally going to happen. It's great to hear the government say that it might finally start to honour Indigenous peoples. But while no one expected to hear the state of sex work discussed at length, referencing the dangerous nature of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act would have been a good way to specifically address issues facing women, Indigenous women, and immigrants, rather than making vague promises.

Naomi Sayers is a law student and activist for sex workers' rights. She is also an Indigenous woman with sex work experience. In an open letter to Wilson-Raybould, she asks the minister to listen to sex workers, and to be open to discussing their realities and concerns. She urges her to consider decriminalization, and explains the dangers of the laws as they stand:

"On the East Coast, one police chief admitted to pushing clients of the most marginalized women, Indigenous women who work on the streets, off the main streets as 'helping' them. Further, the Calgary police admits to seeing less street-based sex workers following their initiatives to target clients. However, seeing less street-based sex workers on the street does not mean that these sex workers are more safe. These two policing initiatives show the harms with targeting clients: it means pushing sex workers off the streets and into the dark corners and allies, into the potential sites of increased violence."

I got in touch with Sayers for a follow-up interview Monday.

"The only positive thing I've seen come out of the throne speech is the mention of launching an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women," she told me via email. "While the government is right to include and focus on the families of these women, I have fear that the realities of Indigenous sex workers, who continue to live in fear and who continue to experience violence as a result of criminalization of their lives in multiple ways, including the criminalization of sex work, will not be addressed."

"While they can remember and honour the missing and murdered," she says, "we must not forget the living."

Wilson-Raybould told Maclean's in November that the laws are something that the government "will be looking at" and that she looks "forward to having more discussions and advising [about] our next steps." She added that the safety of the workers is "fundamentally important."

I reached out to the department of justice for an interview with Wilson-Raybould, but after telling the department that my enquiry was about whether the laws would be repealed, I received no further response from the ministry's media relations department.

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