One year. That's how long the Supreme Court of Canada gave the federal government last December to come up with new laws governing sex work.
The court struck down three laws -- prohibitions on keeping brothels, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with clients -- that violated the right of sex workers to implement measures vital to their safety and security.
"They do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky -- but legal-- activity from taking steps to protect themselves," wrote Justice McLachlin.
Less than six months later, having apparently given the matter much consideration, the government has presented Bill C-36, what Justice Minister Peter MacKay calls the "Canadian model."
Like the failed Nordic model, this made-in-Canada approach criminalizes the clients of sex workers, while ostensibly trying to convince sex workers to stop commodifying their bodies in a hopeless attempt to end the sex trade.
But the Canadian model goes much further, blatantly disregarding the Supreme Court decision as well as studies showing the policing of purchasers puts the same pressures on sex workers, impeding them from screening clients, negotiating transactions, working in safe areas, and accessing police protections.
The Canadian Model
Under the new model, sex workers are still caught in the cross-hairs of law enforcement. Not only are their clients criminalized, but the new bill includes a broad provision prohibiting communication for the purpose of selling sex "in a public space, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present." What is the limit to where children and adolescents can "reasonably be expected"?
If the net cast by that provision seems wide, brace yourself for another law of wondrous scope. The bill prohibits advertisements for the sale of sexual services and gives courts the authority "to order the seizure of materials containing such advertisements and their removal from the Internet." How will this law be used? Will independent print publications be jeopardized? How will Canada govern the internet?
And then there's the reintroduction of the "living on the avails" offence, disguised so thinly it's insulting. The Supreme Court said "living on the avails" captured too many people, including those whose services could help protect sex workers -- such as drivers, managers, bodyguards -- as well as accountants and receptionists. In defiance of the court, the government has outlawed "material benefit" from sex work.
"To protect human dignity"
In the preamble to the bill, the government espouses "human dignity" and "equality" and agonizes over "social harm," stating that it "wishes to encourage those who engage in prostitution to report incidents of violence and to leave prostitution."
None of these concerns will be addressed through the Canadian model.
The inherent social harms and violations of dignity and equality in the Canadian model make me wonder whether the government seeks to end exploitation or simply force others to live the devastating effects of its legislated moralism.
If the aim were to encourage sex workers to report incidents of violence, would we not see increased support for sex workers' and anti-violence groups? Would we not see improved and mandatory police training and oversight related to issues of violence, power, and sex work? Would we not see the decriminalization of the sex trade?
If the aim were to encourage people to exit sex work, would we not see harm reduction practices in place across the country? Would we not see the implementation of a plan to provide secure housing for all? Would we not see a comprehensive campaign to abolish poverty rather than sex work?
The Canadian model has invited danger, death, and future court challenges over the constitutionality of its provisions.
It also invites us to listen and imagine. What would a model that can actually deliver on safety and security look like? Sex workers, researchers, and legal experts have told us and shown us.
Listening to the evidence opens the way to a made-in-Canada approach that ensures dignity, not sacrifices it.