Canadian Government Announces its Response to the Bedford Decision

After months of speculation, the Canadian government yesterday announced its plans for new legislation around sex work.

Last December when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three of the country’s most harmful prostitution laws (the communication, bawdy house, and living on the avails laws) in the Canada v. Bedford Case, the government was given up to one year to come up with a response. There has been much conjecture around the what the proposed legislation would look like, with many sex worker advocates fearing a new set of laws influenced by the so-called Nordic Model.

As Justice Minister Peter MacKay tabled the 120-page proposal, inauspiciously titled Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, it seemed those fears would be realised. “There will always be an inherent danger in this degrading activity.” he said.

The legislation clearly draws heavily upon the sex purchase law introduced in Sweden in 1998 -- by criminalising the purchase of sexual services and the material benefit from sexual services -- but goes even further by criminalising advertising sexual services online and communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places, or in any other places where people under 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.

Provision 286.4: Advertising Sexual Services states:
Everyone who knowingly advertises an offer to provide sexual services for consideration is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction and liable to imprisonment for a term on not more than 18 months.

While the ruling in the Bedford v. Canada was based on concern for the health and safety of Canadian sex workers, and their ability to work in safer spaces, yesterday’s bill appears to disregard those concerns. If this proposed law is implemented, sex workers, no longer allowed to advertise online or in other forms of media, will find themselves with drastically reduced ability to conduct their work safely indoors.

Earlier this week, Pivot Legal Society(members of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform) released a study on the human rights impact of criminalising sex workers’ clients; coming to the conclusion that sex workers’ health and safety would be compromised by such a law. They have now posted a constitutional analysis to the proposed legislation at their blog.

Fellow Alliance members, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released a statement, calling the proposed legislation “a terrible step backwards, which would worsen working conditions for sex workers and render hollow the positive court decision in Bedford.

NSWP member group POWER, based in Ottawa, released this statement:

“Frankly, this response is heartbreaking,” said Emily Symons, Chair of POWER’s Board of Directors. “The Minister had an opportunity to work with sex workers and other concerned parties to develop a solution that supports the safety and human rights of sex workers. Instead, he has chosen to import an approach that will reproduce the harms of the current prostitution laws and won’t stand up to a constitutional challenge. The Supreme Court of Canada made a clear, unanimous statement that the health, safety and lives of sex workers must be prioritized. It is deeply disappointing that the Government of Canada does not share these priorities.”