MONTREAL – The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Canada’s prostitution laws is a victory for all women, Concordia University professor Viviane Namaste said.
“The ruling reaffirms that sex workers have constitutional rights,” Namaste said during a news conference in the university’s EV Building downtown on Friday. “When the Supreme Court says highly marginalized people can ply their trade, when they say (sex workers) have a right to not only work but work in an environment free of violence, that’s a victory.”
While prostitution is not, strictly speaking, illegal in Canada, articles of the criminal code make it a crime for sex workers to negotiate with their clients, live off the avails of prostitution or work in a “bawdy house.” In the court’s unanimous 9-0 ruling, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote that those laws impose “dangerous conditions on prostitution” by pushing it into the shadows.
Now, Parliament will have one year to either come up with new laws that respect the high court’s ruling or operate under a lawless system. In Sweden, a legal framework called the “Nordic Model” imposes criminal code violations on “Johns” and pimps rather than prostitutes, but that idea was roundly rejected by sex work advocates in Montreal Friday.
“We don’t want a legal model that penalizes sexual services, we don’t want to criminalize our clients,” said Anna-Aude Caouette, a representative for Stella (a sex worker resource centre). “These workers need to earn a living, and chasing their clients away strips them of that right. … We want to be very attentive to what the government does next; we hope we’ll be consulted, we know what our needs are, we have the experience.”
Upon hearing of Friday’s ruling, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said he was worried by the decision and wants to make sure criminal law “continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution, and vulnerable persons.”
However, a lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court in favour of striking down the country’s prostitution laws said the ruling doesn’t affect laws against sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
“People are naturally worried and it’s a legitimate feeling,” said Walid Hijazi, a Montreal-based lawyer. “The violent aspects of prostitution which frighten us all remain illegal. In terms of the law, pimps will not have carte blanche to exploit women and children. … We must put aside all of our moral opinions about prostitution and accept that it’s an unavoidable reality in our society.”
Stella will meet with members of Montreal’s executive committee to begin a dialogue about the future of enforcing the country’s prostitution laws. They’ll also discuss Mayor Denis Coderre’s campaign to crack down on the city’s erotic massage parlours, which Coderre claims are a breeding ground for exploitation and human trafficking.
“Of course there’s a need to deal with people who exploit sex workers,” Caouette said. “But the massage parlours often provide a safe working environment. To eliminate that pushes the industry into a dangerous place.”