Vancouver sex workers continue to operate in a legal grey zone one year after the passing of the controversial federal bill that re-criminalized sex work.
Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was passed by parliament last year. But it has never been enforced in Vancouver, which has taken a strong stand on protecting sex workers.
The conflict between the federal law, on one hand, and the city’s policy, on the other, has caused concern among Vancouver sex workers, say advocates.
“I think that there’s still a lot of confusion about the laws, and clients may not, in many cases, know…what the new laws say,” said Brenda Belak with the Pivot Legal Society.
The bill was the Conservative government’s response to a Supreme Court ruling in the landmark Bedford case, in which three provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with sex work were struck down.
For many proponents of decriminalization, including the Canadian Bar Association, C-36 simply re-instated the same laws, effectively re-criminalizing sex work and placing workers back into harm’s way.
“Criminalizing sex workers—harassing them—isn’t doing anyone any favours. It’s just pushing sex work into darker places where more violence can occur,” said Laura Dilley, executive director of PACE Society. PACE supports sex workers in Vancouver.
After the legislation passed, the City of Vancouver took a strong stand against it.
“The City is concerned with the passing of Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, as research confirms that criminalization of sex work puts those involved in sex work at further risk of increased violence” was posted on the city’s website soon after the legislation passed.
The Vancouver police department’s 2013 “Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines” closely align with the city’s statement on C-36. The policy says “the VPD values building relationships with those involved in the sex industry in order to increase the safety of the workers, reduce victimization and violence, and where appropriate (such as with children and teens) to assist with exit strategies.”
Those guidelines were a continuation of the strategies adopted by the Vancouver police dating back to before Bedford and C-36. They were part of the response to the conviction in 2007 of Robert Pickton for the murders of six women, some of whom had been involved in sex work.
“As early as 2010, the police were talking to sex-worker groups in the community about how to build better relationships with sex workers and how to ensure that the tragedies that we saw in Vancouver weren’t repeated,” said Belak.
Belak also claims that the federal bill was drafted with little input from sex workers and those who would be affected by the law. Sex workers invited to participate in the government’s consultation process prior to the bill being passed continue to question the way in which their opinions were represented.
“When I’ve talked to sex workers who took part in those hearings and people working with sex-work organizations,” said Belak, “they said that there were actually times when they were being heckled…they weren’t heard, and they weren’t allowed to speak.”
With a new federal government in place, advocates have renewed hope that a change in policy will be forthcoming.
Canada’s new Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, has stated that the law should be “looked at,” but so far there are no specific plans for revisions.
So the future of the legislation is unclear.
“The Liberals did make some really great promises in the campaign. Now that they’re elected, I’m not so sure. We saw that Trudeau handed the Justice Minister’s mandate to her, and in that mandate, there was no mention of C-36,” said Dilly.
Belak said the Pivot Legal Society is actively pushing for change.
“We won’t be waiting to hear whether or not the act will be amended, we’ll be actively encouraging the government to amend the act, in fact to repeal the act and not to do anything further, in terms of legislating, without talking directly to sex workers,” she said.
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Canada v. Bedford
In the case of Canada v. Bedford, three plaintiffs, Terry-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott, challenged the government of Canada on the country’s prostitution laws.
They argued that the rights of sex workers were being violated by key provisions in the Criminal Code. The code did not outlaw prostitution itself, but limited the acts associated with sex work, pushing sex workers into dangerous situations and ultimately criminalizing them.
The Supreme Court of Canada agreed, striking down three provisions of the Code that limited the constitutional rights of sex workers and endangered them in their otherwise legal actions.
Section 210 prohibited “keeping a common bawdy house,” or operating a centralized place of business that hosts sex work.
Section 212(1)(j) prohibited “living wholly or in part on the avails of prostitution of another person,” or profiting financially from the sex work performed by another person.
Section 213(1)(c) prohibited communicating in any way “for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or of obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld the Ontario Superior Court’s September 2010 ruling and gave the federal government one year to either enact new laws or go forward with these provisions missing from the Criminal Code.