Trudeau government accused of jeopardizing sex workers' safety by refusing to amend Conservative legislation

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      At the seventh annual Red Umbrella march last month, Vancouver sex workers expressed exasperation over the federal Liberal government's failure to take their safety concerns seriously.

      This point was reinforced by several of their allies, who wanted to shine a spotlight on the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

      The law was passed by the former Conservative government nearly five years ago—on December 6, 2014.

      Under section 286.2, anyone who receives a financial or material benefit through the sale of sexual services—apart from sex workers themselves—is liable to hefty prison sentences.

      Section 286.4 outlaws the advertisement of sexual services.

      The law also makes it illegal for anyone to buy sexual services.

      According to Andrew Sorfleet, president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of B.C., Parliament has infringed on sex workers' constitutional right to freedom of association.

      And he's upset that the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has never amended this legislation in its nearly four years in power.

      Andrew Sorfleet cannot charge dues for sex workers to belong to the Triple-X Solidarity Association of B.C. because of a law passed by the former Conservative government.
      Charlie Smith

      "We are not allowed to collect money from sex workers and we are not allowed to collect money in order to promote their business in any way," Sorfleet told the Straight at the event. "That's what a professional association or union would be doing. We would be breaking the law."

      Sorfleet revealed that the Triple-X Workers' Solidarity Association of B.C. has created a certification mark, which could be made available to members to indicate that they are part of the group.

      "In order to do that, we have to collect dues," he said. "All of those things are against the law. I cannot recruit members right now without putting them in legal jeopardy. That's a problem for me."

      To reinforce his frustration, Sorfleet declared that he has "no hope in these Liberals".

      The federal NDP did not mention sex workers' safety in its long list of promises that was released last month.

      But the NDP candidate in North Burnaby–Seymour, Svend Robinson, has suggested that something can be done in this regard.

      He told the Straight at the rally that the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act allows for a review by the Commons justice committee.

      This can take place five years after the law has taken effect.

      "I contacted Murray Rankin, who was then the member of the justice committee from the NDP," Robinson told the Straight. "He then contacted the chair [Anthony Housefather]. They've agreed that yes, the committee—after the election—will actually conduct a full review."

      Robinson added that if he's elected this fall, he'll ensure that sex workers have a voice before the committee.

      In fact, he helped ensure that sex workers were allowed to speak to the justice committee for the first time in 1985 when he was a member of Parliament.

      Burnaby North–Seymour NDP candidate Svend Robinson (with Jamie Lee Hamilton and Imtiaz Popat) is looking forward to a justice committee review of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.
      Charlie Smith

      Back then, sex workers were outraged when the then Progressive Conservative government brought in Bill C-49 to outlaw negotiating the sale of sexual services in public.

      "They said that with this bill, you're going to drive us so far underground and make us work under such difficult conditions—with many more people working with those more dangerous conditions—that violence is bound to escalate," Robinson recalled. "There's no question. It's not theory. It's not hypothesis."

      He pointed out that after this law was introduced, this is precisely what occurred.

      Serial killer Robert William Pickton preyed on sex workers in the Downtown Eastside with impunity for many years.

      "That's why it's so important not to forget that history," Robinson said.

      This so-called "communicating" law was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013 because it violated sex workers' constitutional right to security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

      But its replacement, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, goes even further by outlawing the purchase of sexual services—a prohibition that didn't exist in the past.

      Charlie Smith

      That section, in particular, disturbs Kit Rothschild, a support worker at the PACE Society, which fights for sex workers' rights.

      "The fact that clients are criminalized still makes things extremely dangerous for sex workers because it makes clients not want to meet in more public areas," she said. "And it just drives the work further underground."

      Rothschild said that in the United States, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as SESTA/FOSTA, have resulted in many resources being taken offline.

      She said there are similar provisions in Canadian law, but they're not being enforced with nearly the same level of vigour.

      "So there's a lot less places for people to learn how to do this work safely than there used to be, which is definitely putting people at risk" she noted. "It rushes interactions if you're not able to screen people online."

      Jamie Lee Hamilton remembers what it was like being a sex worker in the West End before a former attorney general, Brian Smith, obtained an injunction in the 1980s ordering her and the others to ply their trade south of Seymour Street.

      Hamilton told the Straight that she's "really disappointed" in Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry and Trudeau for not amending the Conservative legislation to enhance the safety of sex workers.

      Standing beside the memorial for sex workers, Jamie Lee Hamilton and April Vallee said they could remember when the West End was a thriving hub for sex workers.
      Charlie Smith

      One sex worker at the rally said that her industry is primarily made up of women and nonbinary genderqueer people.

      She maintained that decriminalizing sex work is paramount to the health of the community because everyone needs to be loved and touched.

      "We all enter it for the same reason—that we have things to pay for," she said. "We have rent to pay for. We have food to pay for. You know, we enter this work just like you go into any other job."

      But the federal legislation, according to her, makes it more difficult to screen clients. They can't work with drivers or management or even each other.

      "So it forces us into the shadows—and we're more likely to work with criminal activity where our rights aren't respected."