There’s some exciting news coming out of Ottawa this week – Bill C-36 has passed Senate and is on track to receive Royal Assent before the end of the year, meeting the deadline set by the Supreme Court. So what exactly does this mean? It means that in the next few weeks, Canada will have a new prostitution law on the books.
I thought it would be helpful to give an overview of the bill and what’s happened in the last year.
December 20, 2013 – Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court struck down Canada’s existing prostitution laws, meaning that living off the avails of prostitution, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and operating within a brothel would no longer be illegal. In essence, both the buying and selling of sex would be decriminalized. Pro-prostitution groups hailed this as a step forward for the rights of sex workers, who asserted this would make their work safer.
The Supreme Court gave Parliament exactly one year to respond to the ruling, giving them the opportunity to rewrite the laws on prostitution if they wished to do so. If Parliament chose not to act, the Supreme Court ruling would carry through on December 20 of 2014, decriminalizing prostitution across the country.
June 4, 2014 – Bill Introduced
Parliament decided to respond to the Court decision, and on June 4, Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced Bill C-36 (The Protection of Communities and Exploited Person Act). The proposed legislation recognized people in prostitution primarily as victims of either force or circumstance, and focused on demand reduction. Under the new law:
- The purchase of sex would be criminalized. This is the critical piece, as it seeks to reduce demand for paid sex. Demand is the economic engine that fuels sexual exploitation and makes sex trafficking extremely lucrative. While there will always be some people who go out of their way to pay for sex, adding barriers will deter the majority from engaging. According to a study that asked men (including some who admitted they had paid for sex) which initiatives would deter them from purchasing sex, 80-83% said jail time and 66-79% mentioned monetary fines. Targeting demand is a big step forward if we are to deal with the issue of sexual exploitation on a long-term scale.
- The selling of sex would be decriminalized. This recognizes that those in prostitution are primarily in a position of inequality, and should not be criminalized. The proposed law would only charge those selling sex if they do so in an area where minors could be present.
- Receiving a material benefit from the exploitation of another person would be illegal. This means pimping. Other non-exploitative arrangements would not be criminalized, meaning that spouses, roommates, and dependents of those in prostitution would be exempt from a criminal offence. However, trafficking (exploiting someone for profit), would not be legal. While traffickers could potentially masquerade as “bodyguards” and “drivers,” the exemptions made in the bill align with the Charter and allow for those who wish to hire security services for their own protection to do so.
- Advertising the sexual services of another person would be illegal.
- The government would pledge $20M in new funding for exit programs and aftercare.
July 2014 – Response & Amendments
After passing second reading, the bill headed to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. The Committee heard testimonies from dozens of representatives on both ends of the spectrum, including trafficking victims, pro-prostitution sex workers, lawyers, professors, NGOs, and others (watch our testimony here, starts at minute 12:30).
Two camps emerged during the hearings, which was no surprise. The first group consisted of sex workers and others who claimed that decriminalizing the industry (both buying and selling) was the best way forward, any other option would make sex work dangerous (which I address here). The second group consisted of former sex industry individuals, trafficking survivors, and NGOs who believed that decriminalizing the purchase of sex would have the long-term effect of increased demand and result in more harm for the majority of those in prostitution, citing the experiences of other countries.
One component of the proposed legislation was unanimously challenged by every group that testified in committee – the piece that made it illegal to sell sex in an area “where persons under the age of 18 could reasonably be expected to be present.” Many pointed out that people in prostitution usually do it because they are in a position of inequality and vulnerability, and should never be criminalized regardless of their location. The proposed legislation was also too vague about what constituted as an area where “minors could reasonably be expected to be present.”
The Committee passed ended up passing Bill C-36, with the following amendments:
- Amendment # 1: The location “where minors could be present” was narrowed down to “next to a school, playground, or daycare centre.” Though it would be better to strike the provision down altogether, at least this amendment makes it less vague.
- Amendment #2: Within 5 years of the bill becoming law, a comprehensive review of its impact will be undertaken, to see if anything needs to be fine-tuned or changed.
October 6, 2014 – Bill C-36 Passes Third Reading
The bill passed with a 156-124 vote. All Conservatives voted in favour, while Liberals, NDP & the Green Party voted against.
November 4, 2014 – Bill C-36 Passes Senate
Bill C-36 passes the Senate and is set to receive Royal Assent before the December 19 deadline. This means that prostitution will not be decriminalized, and that by early 2015 Canada will have a new prostitution law.
After engaging with thousands of Canadians across the country on this issue during our film tour, the passing of Bill C-36 is fantastic, exciting news! To all of you who contacted your member of Parliament, hosted a screening of Red Light Green Light, or signed a petition, thank you! We also congratulate MP Joy Smith for all her hard work over the last several years on this issue. Here’s a snippet from her statement today:
“I am delighted to share with you that yesterday evening, the Senate of Canada passed Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. With the passage of Bill C-36, Canada has established a new approach to addressing prostitution that recognizes the harm prostitution causes to women and youth.
This is a historic moment for equality and women’s rights in Canada. For the first time in Canada’s history, the buying and advertising of sexual services will be illegal, and the government will provide robust funding to help women and youth escape prostitution.”
- I believe that Bill C-36 is a step in the right direction. It would be naive to think that one law will solve the complex problems surrounding this issue, but the legislation is a critical component that has great potential to prevent sexual exploitation.
- The foundations have been set, but we must build well from here. While the law has gender equality and protection of vulnerable groups at its core, we must be careful that its implementation does not slip into a “tough on crime” paradigm. Law enforcement needs to understand the spirit of the law and be educated in depth about how to respond in various situations. Compassion and humility are key.
- We must identify the factors that contribute to sexual exploitation, and recognize that issues melt into each other. Things like poverty and child sexual abuse act as push factors that make youth vulnerable, and we must be diligent about putting systems into place that get at some of these root factors. If we are serious about preventing sexual exploitation, we also need a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
- One thing that makes me sad is how polarized this issue became in Parliament. I personally knew of MPs across party lines who supported the legislation but voted the party line. The extremes appeared on both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, some argued that everything should be criminalized, including the selling of sex. On the left, some argued that nothing should be criminalized, including the purchase of sex. The asymmetrical approach of the bill (which also applies to loan sharking) addresses both vulnerability and demand. My hope is that as we move forward, our Parliamentarians would be more willing to work together so that the law can be fine-tuned wisely if need be. I guess the question is: how do we make the environment in the House of Commons less toxic, less partisan, and more respectful?
- Let’s commit to the long haul. Let’s encourage our representatives – locally, provincially and federally – to make this a financial priority. $20 million is the tip of the iceberg for what is needed, so let’s do our part to funnel more funding into both prevention and aftercare. This is of paramount importance for this legislation to succeed.
If we are intentional and wise, I believe that Canada’s new prostitution law has great potential to go a long way to prevent sexual exploitation. I am honoured to be part of a community that cares about these issues and continues to press on!