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Landmark decision on sex worker rights finally here

It was worth getting up so early Friday morning, 5:30AM Vancouver time, to head down to PIVOT's office to hear the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark decision on the Canada v. Bedford case.

What a great victory. I feel like saying "hallelujah" that these awful laws have been struck down. It’s been decades of work by selfless people, sex workers and allies alike, to undertake legal challenges, advocacy, and lobbying, and staying focussed on why these laws needed to be eliminated.

That the Conservative government in Ottawa felt compelled to appeal earlier court decisions is another example of their ideological bias and prejudice. Not to mention the waste of public funds on these costly appeals.

Prostitution has always been legal in Canada, but the harmful laws surrounding sex work placed sex workers in perilous situations, and has contributed to many deaths.

The communicating law in particular (now struck down), which made it illegal to communicate in a public place, including a motor vehicle, was one of the worst laws. I remember very well the vitriolic campaigns calling for this law by many cities - including Vancouver - in the early 1980's. I was a new city councillor at the time and the pressure to "just go along" and join the call for the adoption of the communicating law was fierce. I'm proud to say a few of us resisted that pressure because we believed it would be a bad law. Even so the Vancouver City Council of the day led the charge for new laws to control street prostitution. 

Just this week Vancouver City Council adopted a comprehensive report to support the safety and rights of sex workers

The advent of the communicating law created terrible harms and danger. In Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the disappearance and murder of sex workers, many of whom were Aboriginal, became a major national focus for law reform and a public inquiry. We finally got the public inquiry in BC, but we continue to press for a national inquiry. Thanks to Niki Ashton MP for her great work on this too. 

I want to remember for a moment a day nearly 30 years ago, when the community marched along Dundas Street in east Vancouver, to a dumpster where the body of a brutally murdered sex worker had been found earlier. We marched on to the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings in the first public acknowledgement of the tragedy of the missing and murdered women. I will never forget that day -- because it compelled me to act and speak out.

You see, to bring about change on an issue like this, where you challenge the status quo, takes decades of slogging work, and you run into a lot of obstacles along the way. This issue has been one of the most challenging that I've worked on, because for a long time no one in public office wanted to deal with it. Sex workers were treated as second class citizens to be ignored, victimized, and criminalized. It has also been a divisive issue in the feminist community. and I can attest to the sharp debates and political jabs that happen along the way!

Even so, I have always believed that full decriminalization was the best position to adopt.

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court of Canada is truly a landmark and a victory. It only came about because of the outstanding and courageous legal challenge from the three appellants, and the incredible work of people like lawyers Alan Young, and Katrina Pacey from PIVOT. Most of all, it is the sex workers themselves who took on these injustices in the law and societal attitude, and forced us to open our eyes, and see what needed to be done.

I know there is now a lot more work to do: What will the response of the Conservative government be? Will they try to bring in other laws that will also create harm? What is the role of municipalities? There are many questions, but there is time to consider these concerns and develop a rational and intelligent public debate.

But just for the moment -- let's celebrate this historic decision and recognize the amazing people who got us here.

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