Elizabeth Fry Societies mull national support for decriminalizing sex work

·3 min read
Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. (CBC - image credit)
Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. (CBC - image credit)

Groups in Nova Scotia that help sex workers are welcoming plans by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies to revise its position on sex work.

Emilie Coyle is the executive director of the Ottawa-based CAEFS, which works with its 23 independent societies across the country to create a world without prisons.

Coyle said CAEFS's existing position is more than a decade old.

"The past position on sex work was one that did support the criminalization of certain aspects of sex work, and that doesn't really align to our vision of a world without prisons with strong and well-resourced communities for everyone," she told CBC Radio's Information Morning.

She said CAEFS initially supported the federal government's Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which replaced previous laws on sex work. But the newer act now faces a constitutional challenge at Ontario Superior Court.

"If any aspect of the work that they are doing is being criminalized, they can't look to protection either from peers, from organizations, or from the authorities," Coyle said.

She said most of the people incarcerated and seeking help from Elizabeth Fry have been involved in sex work at some point in their life. Coyle said the law makes it legal to sell sex, but not to buy it or negotiate a deal. That leads people to make those deals out of the public eye, which can put them in danger.

She said CAEFS will take a new position for totally decriminalizing sex work to its annual general meeting in June for a vote from its members.

'Listening to our clients'

Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. She said the society found the existing position "antiquated" and welcomed the review.

"And more importantly, the process of listening to our clients in reviewing the position and have their voice be at the centre of decision-making is extraordinarily valuable for creating safety," she told Information Morning.

"For them to feel understood, supported in the community, it's extremely important that we take positions that acknowledge who they are and that do not in any way lead them to feel they have to be shamed or unsupported by us as an organization."

The news was also welcomed by Alex MacDonnell, executive director of Stepping Stone, which helps sex workers in the Halifax area.

She noted that when the pandemic hit, sex workers couldn't claim CERB or any other work-related benefits.

"I do think that sex work needs to be decriminalized. I think that it needs to be viewed as a profession. If it was, during the pandemic they would have been able to collect the CERB and there would have been more support," she said.

MacDonnell said it's important to separate sex work, which people chose to do, from human trafficking, which is forced on people.

Craig Paisley/CBC
Craig Paisley/CBC

She also said Stepping Stone recently moved into a new home on Primrose Street in Dartmouth. When it fully opens Dec. 5, it will let the organization help clients with food, clothing, haircuts, therapy, and options to change careers or return to school.

"This is a life-changing event for Stepping Stone. We've never had a permanent location. Now it's a place we can call our own."

The new home also has a four-bedroom apartment. Stepping Stone next hopes to secure funding to turn that into a transition home for people trying to get off the street and into longer-term housing.