Canada v. Bedford – the immediate aftermath

On 20 December 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the last of the laws that relating to sex work that sex workers’ rights campaigners have argued were unconstitutional. The Criminal Code of Canada included a number of provisions, such as ‘outlawing public communication for the purposes of prostitution’ which relates to bans on street soliciting, ‘operating a bawdy house’ or ‘living off of the avails of prostitution’ although being a sex worker was not illegal. It was argued by Bedford that the laws in the Criminal Code of Canada deprive sex workers of their right to security by forcing them to work secretly. While the ruling has been welcomed by sex workers’ rights campaigners, there is a real and present danger that the current Canadian government might pursue the controversial ‘Nordic Model’ which purports to decriminalise the sex worker while criminalising the client. It does remain to be seen however, given that many of the laws relating to sex work have been found to be unconstitutional, how all elements of a ‘Nordic Model’ approach to sex work will be fully constitutional. As things stand at the moment,according to one news report, in cases of suspected exploitative circumstances, police officers might consider laying charges under the Traffic Safety Act or other provisions of the Criminal Code to deal with sex work-related activity. One would think that provisions in the Criminal Code dealing with assault and coercion would suffice.

Since the ruling however, there have been a number raids of sex worker establishments to determine the number of victims of exploitation. On January 22-23, this year 26 police services in more than 32 cities and towns across Canada were involved in what was called: Operation Northern Spotlight -- dubbed as a "two-day police blitz aimed at cracking down on sex slavery." Police departments included Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta; Regina and Saskatoon in Saskatchewan; Winnipeg; Gatineau, Que.; Halifax; Saint John, N.B.; St. John's, N.L.; and 17 communities in Ontario.

Police across Canada visited or raided sex-worker establishments to determine how many sex workers were victims of exploitation. 180 police personnel interviewed 333 women, and identified 25 suspected human traffickers. In many of the cities sex workers were invited to a hotel room where police offered them resources for exiting the sex trade.

In Peel and Durham region (Ontario) police interviewed 53 women between 16 and 45 years old. Fourteen of the women were believed to be "under some level of control" -- "forced into the sex industry though threats, intimidation and drug dependency, and some are as young as 15, police said after the two-day operation." "Many of the women appear to be making their own decisions to participate for financial gain," Peel police said, but added, "Part or all of the proceeds from the sexual encounters were kept by their adult male controller or pimp." Nine men were arrested and face 83 charges related to Human Trafficking, firearm offences, drug possession and child pornography.

News Laws to be in place before December

Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced in Halifax the government will introduce its new prostitution legislation well ahead of a December deadline. At this announcement, MacKay also stated: "The attorney general and justice minister, federally, doesn't tell police forces or territorial Attorney Generals to lay charges, but our expectation, and I think the public expectation more importantly, Canadians', is that they will be protected by these services."

Provinces announce they won't press charges

Several provinces have indicated that they will not be prosecuting sex work-related offences that were struck down as unconstitutional by Canada's highest court, and in some cases existing charges are being thrown out.

In Ontario, a Ministry of the Attorney General spokesman said that: "if there are no "alternate sex work-related charges appropriate to the facts of the case," Ontario will likely not prosecute under the impugned laws. Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have all sent varying signals or directives to their Crown attorneys in the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada last December. In Alberta, defence lawyers urged justice officials to stay charges currently before the courts. Alberta Justice and Solicitor General said there are 400 charges that are affected by the Supreme Court's landmark ruling last December. Edmonton police vice unit Det. Steven Horchuk said police will continue to focus on the "consumer side" of sex work, in particular cases involving exploitive circumstances. In some cases, he said, charges may be laid under the Traffic Safety Act or other provisions of the Criminal Code to deal with sex work-related activity. He added however, that police are no longer laying charges for ‘communicating for the purpose of prostitution’, since the charges won't be prosecuted by the Crown. British Columbia has become the latest province to announce it will not prosecute most sex work-related offences over last year's ruling by Canada's highest court that the laws are unconstitutional.