News / Canada

Ottawa 'ignored' research when crafting new prostitution laws, say academics

As the federal government unveils reforms to Canada's prostitution laws, critics say the new legislation has been crafted without input from the very people it's supposed to protect.

"The government has not been willing to listen. Sex workers have been standing up for months and they've been effectively shut out," said Dr. Chris Atchison, a professor at the University of Victoria who has studied the sex trade for two decades.

The Conservative government tabled the new legislation in the Commons Wednesday. Dubbed "The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act," the bill is the Harper government's response to last year's Supreme Court decision, which struck down Canada's existing prostitution laws.

The content of the bill is still being scrutinized, but a press release from Justice Minister Peter MacKay suggests the government is adopting the so-called Nordic model, promising action "to crack down on pimps and johns," but not sex workers themselves.

"The impact of the new prohibitions will be borne by those who purchase sex and persons who exploit others through prostitution," MacKay said.

The bill also prohibits advertising sexual services and would outlaw soliciting "in public places where a child could reasonably be expected to be present."

Atchison said that while the new laws may appeal to "a certain moral spectrum," they fly in the face of academic research and will do little to safeguard sex workers.

"Any form of criminalization pushes the industry into the realm of organized crime and keeps it hidden," he said. "When sexual transactions are conducted out of sight, it leads to high levels of exploitation and victimization for all parties concerned."

Atchison said he and his academic colleagues contacted the government following December's Supreme Court ruling, but were ignored.

"The leading researchers in Canada reached out to the government to share their findings," he said. "We reached out to them personally, and sent letters directly to Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay. All we got was a canned response: a 'thank you for your interest' with a rubber stamp."

On Monday, the federal Justice Department released the results of an online survey showing a slim majority of respondents feel that buying sex should remain illegal. Atchison questioned its methodology.

"It's not worth the paper it's written on," he said. "It's 31,000 people who happened to come across the information online... it doesn't represent Canadians at all."

The Conservatives did hold a consultation process, where they heard from a dozen groups connected to the prostitution debate.

One of the organizations invited to participate was REAL Women of Canada, described by some as "a thinly-veiled hate group" which recently faced criticism for equating transgender people with pedophiles.

"Each member had about seven minutes to speak and at least half of the attendees were proponents of the Nordic model," said Robyn Maynard of Stella, an advocacy organization based in Montreal. "As far as meaningful consultation goes, that would mean that the voices of sex workers would be privileged and that didn't happen."

Maynard called the new bill "extremely disappointing" and said it fails to respect the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling.

"I'm sure there will be another Supreme Court challenge at some point," she said. "The only question is how many people will be injured or hurt in the meantime. How many more people will be negatively impacted by these laws before we challenge them again?"