Prostitution: Canada's proposed law is finally a step in the right direction

David Kilgour
David vs. David
Justice Minister Peter MacKay speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill.

The Harper government’s proposed Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (C-36) is a major step in a better direction for Canadians on prostitution. It adapts the relatively successful ‘Nordic Model’ applied in Sweden, Norway and Iceland to what our Supreme Court indicated in the Bedford case is necessary for valid new legislation under our Charter of Rights.

“For whose benefit?” respond prostitution advocates, as if all opinions on the issue should be afforded equal weight, including those of pimps, johns and the tiny percentage of sex workers – 2-3 per cent is the best estimate this writer can obtain  not subject to regular abuse, misery and violence. Julia Roberts' role in the film “Pretty Woman” represents virtually nothing that overwhelming numbers of prostitutes appear to experience almost daily across Canada.

Targeting johns and pimps directly is unlikely to render the bill unconstitutional, partly because, according to University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin, the Nordic approach was found by a judicial study of a ten-year period in Sweden not to have driven prostitution underground.

[ David Jones: Perhaps the best prostitution law is no law at all ]

The bill would end our 122-year-old misguided Criminal Code approach to prostitution as a nuisance to ‘polite society,’ continued in amendments in 1972 and 1985, by banning the purchase of sexual services by johns for being inherently exploitative and a commodification of persons.

However, it would also immunize those of both genders who sell their own sexual services from criminal liability for any part they have in the purchase, benefits, procuring or advertising offences.

Prostitution is not illegal in France, which has an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 sex workers according to a 2012 report.

Most important, it sanctions johns and pimps who fuel demand for prostitution with tougher penalties on conviction, including ones for advertising sex services in print or online.

Its ban on communications intended to sell sexual services in neighbourhoods where children could reasonably be expected to be present might well prove unacceptable under the Bedford ruling. The parliamentary committee considering the bill could better define ‘neighbourhoods.’ This section, once improved, could be referred to the court for a declaratory judgment as quickly as feasible on its validity.

The provision of $20 million for organizations assisting persons wanting to exit prostitution is unlikely to be sufficient, considering the thousands of vulnerable girls and women across the country. For example, a recent City of Calgary study estimated that it alone had between one and three thousand sex workers.

Earlier this year, PACT, an anti-human trafficking group, reported that a minimum of 150 women and girls in the Ottawa region alone, all of whom were Canadian citizens and some as young as 12, had been recruited by force into prostitution over the past six years. It appears that most who enter prostitution today do so between 14 and 20 years of age, with many suffering from substance abuse and prior sexual victimization.

Human trafficking for sexual purposes is a large and growing problem across Canada. Aboriginal girls and women constitute a disproportionately large share of the victims, including trafficked, missing and murdered victims.

In a dismaying interview in late March on CBC Radio, ‘Sarah’ recounted being kidnapped by a criminal gang pimp and spending four years as his prostitute/slave in the national capital region. She estimates that she brought him about $1 million over those years while she went through sheer hell. She nonetheless blames johns as much as the pimp for her ordeal.

Julia Roberts' role in the film “Pretty Woman” represents virtually nothing that overwhelming numbers of prostitutes appear to experience almost daily across Canada.

Germany legalized prostitution, brothel ownership and pimping in 2001, seeking to make it just another profession. The respected Der Spiegel magazine last year carried a series of articles, quoting aid organizations and experts on how the policy had failed. It noted that up to 200,000 persons work as prostitutes across Germany, with “65 to 80 per cent com(ing) from abroad,” mostly from Romania and Bulgaria. The Economist magazine bluntly termed Germany “one giant brothel,” with entrepreneurs on the border with France “investing in mega brothels that cater to cross-border demand.”

Brian McConaghy of Vancouver, a former civilian member of the RCMP and founder of Ratanak International, an NGO which combats trafficking of girls and women for prostitution purposes in Cambodia and elsewhere, notes:

One of the key indicators of a mature democracy is its ability to … create legislation that protects the most vulnerable and abused … In creating legislation that recognizes those victimized by prostitution, Canada has moved to protect those 'untouchables' who are frequently not recognized as victims by virtue of their appearance.

In short, the bill is correct in accepting that the vast majority of prostitutes of both genders are forced to sell themselves because of threats, violence, addictions, poverty or human trafficking. Going after pimps and johns, while leaving prostitutes alone except to offer them assistance to escape, is progressive public policy.

(Photos courtesy of Reuters)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.