Government tables Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act
A new prostitution law the federal government tabled Thursday will do nothing to help vulnerable street-level prostitutes in Sudbury, or anywhere else in Canada, says a local advocate for sex workers.
“The problem is they're using the criminal law to go after what is a complex social problem,” said Christine Schmidt, co-founder of Project PEACE, an organization whose members are women who have lived experiences with prostitution.
On June 5, the government tabled the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, or Bill C-36.
The act took a page from the Nordic model – introduced in Sweden in 1999, and later adopted in Norway, Finland and Iceland – in which it is legal to sell a sexual service, but illegal to buy it.
The act also bans communication for the purposes of selling a sexual service in any public place where a child might be present. Justice Minister Peter Mackay said those places include parks, schools, malls, religious institutions and residential streets.
The new bill was as direct response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision in December 2013 that struck down Canada's previous prostitution laws. Those laws did not criminalize prostitution – but made most of the activities around it illegal. A group of prostitutes complained the rules forced them to conduct their legal business out of sight, in unsafe environments.
Schmidt said the ability for police officers to issue fines for the communication sexual services, in particular, was a step backwards.
She said the law would go after people who were already among the most vulnerable members of society.
But others have argued the new laws could do more to hold accountable the johns and pimps who exploit sex workers.
“Many are actually happy, because finally it brings men into account for exploiting women in some context,” Schmidt said.
The bill also includes a $20-million investment to help sex workers leave prostitution.
Schmidt said exit programs in Toronto and other cities have been “incredibly unsuccessful” because they haven't addressed the social issues – such as addiction, poverty and homelessness – that lead to street-level prostitution.
Janice, a member of Project PEACE and former sex worker who chose not to share her real name, said the fund to help sex workers leave the life behind will only be successful if it is used to provide housing and education for vulnerable men and women.
Janice said she entered the sex trade many years ago, after her husband died at a young age and she needed to provide for her young child.
“I have a special needs child that the government wasn't providing services for and was on assistance,” she said. “I couldn't work. This was a way of getting services and help for my child.”
Janice said a strong support network helped her turn her life around and leave prostitution behind.
Now, she helps local sex workers by sharing her own experience.
Lee-Ann Taccone, also a former sex worker and member of Project PEACE, said the government cannot prevent young women from entering the sex trade through law enforcement.
“We can't just keep arresting the girls or the pimps, because it's not solving anything,” she said. “They're part of society regardless of how we look at it.”
In a release, Justice Minister MacKay said the government's new legislation will strike a balance between the full criminalization and full legalization of prostitution.
“There will always be an inherent danger in this degrading activity,” he said. “International studies have shown that full decriminalization and legalization ultimately results in higher rates of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. This is not what the clear majority of Canadians want.”