We don’t have the article on-line, but in July 2008 I interviewed Valerie Scott (pictured), executive director of the Sex Professionals of Canada, about a legal challenge her organization was mounting in Ontario Superior Court concerning certain provisions of the criminal code that governed prostitution.
The Robert Pickton trial in Vancouver had just concluded a few months earlier, with Pickton being convicted of second degree murder in the deaths of six women who were sex trade workers on Vancouver’s gritty downtown Eastside. As for the number of women who Pickton actually killed, he reputedly confessed to 49 killings over a 10 or so year period.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada. But over the years the government has passed a number of laws to prohibit certain activities related to the sex trade. SPOC’s legal challenge focused on three criminal code provisions: s.210 (keeping a bawdy house), s.212.1(j) (living on the avails) and s.213.1(c) (communicating for the purposes of prostitution).
The rationale behind the challenge was that because the provisions effectively forced sex trade workers to operate in isolation in remote areas of cities, where they were vulnerable to sexual predators like Pickton, they violated the constitutional rights of workers to safety and security. SPOC also argued that other laws related to extortion, forcible confinement and sexual assault were in place to protect sex trade workers from exploitation from pimps and johns.
Today, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with SPOC and struck down the three sections (here’s CBC and Globe & Mail reports). Observed Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, “Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes.”
As courts often do in a situation like this, the SCC gave the government a year to bring in new legislation that respected the constitutional rights of sex trade workers. As of tonight, though, Regina and Saskatoon city police have indicated that they will continue to enforce the existing laws.
Many other countries are grappling with the same issue. Some have sought to crack down on the johns who purchase services from sex trade workers, while others have opted to either decriminalize or legalize the sex trade. To a certain extent, this reminds me of the debate over the decriminalization of marijuana. As it stands now, with cannabis being lumped in with cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs under the Controlled Drugs & Substances Act, a huge black market exists for the herb which fuels violence and gang activity. If cannabis was decriminalized and properly regulated, that black market would disappear.
A similar argument can be made, I think, with respect to the sex trade. Hopefully before the federal government responds to the court ruling with new legislation they’ll consult with people who have firsthand knowledge of the sex trade to ensure that the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated.