As commissioner of the missing-women inquiry, Wally Oppal heard heartbreaking stories of loss. Although a review of prostitution laws wasn’t in his mandate, his report left no doubt that these regulations contributed to the tragedies.
As Oppal wrote in 2012, the present legal system drives survival sex workers into “a space where men could hurt women and not be accountable…a zone bereft of justice and outside the rule of law”.
A year after the release of his Forsaken report on how police and the criminal-justice branch dealt with the disappearances of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Criminal Code prohibitions on public solicitation, brothels, and living off the avails of prostitution.
Oppal—now senior counsel with Boughton Law—said he hopes women’s safety is considered when prostitution laws are rewritten. The Conservative government is expected to introduce legislation that goes after clients and pimps but not sex workers.
Although Oppal said he didn’t want to speculate on whether or not sex workers would be safer under the so-called Nordic model—used in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland—the former judge and ex–B.C. attorney general supports its main thrust.
“I do favour [an] approach that targets those people who are purchasing sex,” Oppal told the Straight by phone.
If the government chooses to criminalize some acts related to prostitution, the lawyer said, the hammer shouldn’t fall on women, especially those working on the street.
“If it’s going to be illegal, then I think that rather than charge the vulnerable women, who are often engaged in the trade in order to satisfy their addiction [and] to survive…I would like to think that those people who are there purchasing it should be the targets of any enforcement,” Oppal said.
According to him, society has an “obligation” to survival sex workers, who are mostly drug-addicted, poor, and aboriginal. “Morally, we must care. We must not put them in a position where their safety is jeopardized,” he said.
Oppal’s pride in his work on missing and murdered women is unmistakable. “In fact, I still get stopped—you know, a year-and-a-half after the report—on the street thanking me for what we did.”