The federal government is soliciting public opinion about the sale and purchase of sex by adults.
Although its online consultation is hardly over, Ottawa is seen to favour the so-called Nordic model used in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland.
Vancouver lawyers Elin Sigurdson and Georgialee Lang agree that the Conservative government looks keen on going after buyers of sex and pimps, not the prostitutes.
This follows last year’s Supreme Court of Canada decision that invalidated criminal prohibitions against communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution, living off the avails, and brothels.
Sigurdson and Lang represented opposing sides in that case. They’re likely to be in the same position again if the government embraces the Nordic approach.
“Our clients think that the policy of criminalizing clients or johns is going to create exactly the same harms that existed under the laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada,” Sigurdson told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
She was one of the lawyers for Pivot Legal Society, Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, and PACE Society, which held that current laws endanger sex workers in violation of their constitutional rights to life and security.
“We think that to the extent that it causes the same harm, it’s going to be unconstitutional,” Sigurdson said about the Nordic model.
Lang represented the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and she indicated that many are convinced that this new system will withstand a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge.
She also pointed out that as far as the ruling Conservative Party of Canada is concerned, the Nordic approach will not alienate its base, which includes her clients.
“They’re a Christian-based organization, and they have a desire to help these girls that are on the street, the ones that are exploited, the ones that are beat up and that are drug addicts and are there because they can’t support themselves any other way,” Lang told the Straight by phone. “They support programs to help these women get off the streets, and so that sits with their profile where they’re saying, ‘We think prostitution is wrong, but we don’t want to attack the girls.’ ”
The government has one year to introduce legislation that complies with the December 20, 2013, ruling of the country’s highest court.
At present, the sale of sex is legal. However, soliciting in public, living off avails, and keeping a bawdyhouse are not.
“There’s a strong, silent majority that don’t want the law changed,” Lang said.
Scarlett Lake used to be a sex worker and exotic dancer. Now an owner of a Vancouver escort service, Lake is also a director of PACE Society, one of the groups represented by Sigurdson.
“We don’t really trust the current government to be looking for the best thing for sex workers,” Lake told the Straight in a phone interview. “They’re going to be more concerned with how they appear to their constituents.”
Lake rejects the Nordic model as a “terrible idea” that doesn’t make prostitutes safer.
On February 13 this year, Joy Smith, a Conservative MP from Manitoba, released a report in which she suggested a Canadian version of the Nordic system. Smith’s recommendations include fines and jail time for buyers of sex, mandatory prison for pimps and human traffickers, and programs for exiting prostitution.
For Sigurdson, the federal government shouldn’t stop with the Department of Justice’s web-based consultation that closes on March 17.
“We would encourage the government to expand the process and, in particular, make sure that they speak to sex workers directly,” she said. “An important part of meaningful consultation is addressing issues in proposed legislation with the people that are going to be most directly affected by it.”
Sigurdson said she is afraid that without speaking to sex workers, the government is going to make mistakes.