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Our continually mystifying Minister of Justice Peter MacKay has made yet another nonsensical move on behalf of the Harper government, this time with the introduction of Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s (SCC) ruling in the Bedford decision struck down three sections of the Criminal Code that were challenged to be unconstitutional:

  • s. 210 keeping or being in a bawdy-house
  • s. 212 living on the avails of prostitution
  • s. 213 communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution

The SCC’s 80 page ruling cited failures in the system and how the current laws bear responsibility for the many risks and deaths sex workers face, and finally, that the laws do infringe upon a sex worker’s section 7 Charter rights to security of the person “by preventing implementation of safety measures that could protect them from violent clients.”

So here’s where MacKay steps in with Bill C-36. Or rather, stomps in like a villainous monster with heavy feet, crushing everything in its path.

Not only does the bill flagrantly disregard the spirit of the SCC ruling, rendering the bill unconstitutional, it creates even more harms than the original laws. Upon closer analysis, sex workers are indeed criminalized in many — if not most — instances of selling their services.

Offering services safely in public? Criminal. Working together? Criminal. Working in a regular indoor location? Criminal. Working underage? Criminal. Advertising someone’s services? Criminal. And so it goes…

These laws aren’t about protecting workers; they’re full on NIMBYism.

MacKay in his press conference stated that the government views the “vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims… Most are often forced into the activity by a complex array of societal ills such as violence, addiction, extortion, intimidation, poverty and human trafficking to name a few.”

Extremely flawed statistic of “majority” notwithstanding, he conveniently ignores just how those “social ills” have come into play — shifting any blame away from government — with violence, extortion and intimidation often initiated by police.

As for human trafficking, there is more trafficking in hard labour, farming, domestic, child care and hospitality industries than there is in sex work, with few arrests or convictions of ‘sex traffickers.’ And until the Harper government can ensure that no one lives in poverty, he cannot mandate how people feed themselves or their children, or put roofs over their heads.

Criminalizing sex workers does not save anyone except the conservatives from their own bigotry. An arrest record makes it more difficult to find other ‘legitimate’ jobs or housing, and creates barriers to services. Factor in gender and race discrimination plus abuse by the police — believe it, it happens. A lot — and C-36 proves itself to be the opposite of protective. It creates so many deplorable conditions for sex workers it should be nicknamed the Pickton Model.

But let’s get something straight: it’s not the act of selling sex that is inherently dangerous, it’s all the laws surrounding it.

You can listen to the ‘rescue industry’ all you want as they quote from fake statistics, debunked studies and government propaganda as to the true numbers of those in sex work.

Does exploitation and abuse exist? Yes. As does in many industries, especially when workers are not afforded rights.

But who do you think are better judges of who is exploited and who isn’t? Is it politicians protecting their own base? The people who fundraise for their own celebrated foundations? Or maybe it’s columnists for popular national publications.

No, it’s the people who actually work in the industry who are the best judges.

I recently attended an event that touted itself as an open forum for discussion about what’s next for Canada’s prostitution laws. What it turned out to be was a room of 30 or so well-coiffed guests and organizers arguing against the decriminalization of sex work, and me plus one other gentleman arguing for it.

Tax evasion, nasty STI transmission, the sanctity of marriage, absent fathers buying sex, why the government should bother protecting those who choose to do dangerous work, pimps and why-can’t-they-just-get-a-real-job concerns: This is the face behind C-36’s mask. 

Their issues trumped the actual issue at hand: safety and human rights for all Canadians, just as our Supreme Court wants the government to implement. 

On the other end of the spectrum are events organized by sex workers themselves, along with their allies. They’ve been fighting for safe working conditions and basic human rights for so many years that there are now various annual commemoration and memorial days around the globe.  

So, if you want to hear from those who will be directly affected by MacKay’s dangerous and unconstitutional legislation, we need to listen to sex workers. They have more at stake than those who think arrests of sex workers and incarceration of “perverts” (your tax dollars at work!) will ‘end demand’ for sex.


Sonya JF Barnett is a SlutWalk Cofounder, artist, writer, speaker and advocate for healthy sexual expression. 

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