Last week, Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry told the Straight that she expects her government to review the country’s major sex-work law to ensure that it is in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Her comments came a year after Vancouver’s most famous sex worker, the now deceased Jamie Lee Hamilton, blasted the Liberals in an interview with the Straight for not amending the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act in their first term in power.
"What the attorney general will do is look at it, decide whether or not it is charter-compliant or in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling on Section 7 of the charter—and make amendments and then present the amended bill to the House,” Fry said.
Many believe that this law puts sex workers in danger by criminalizing the purchase and advertising of sexual services.
However, the national coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR), Jenn Clamen, told the Straight by phone that despite Fry’s words of support, there’s no evidence to suggest the Liberal government will change the law.
“I’ll start by saying Hedy Fry is a great champion for sex workers’ rights and has been for many years,” Clamen acknowledged. “She is based in an area of the country that has seen very high levels of violence toward sex workers. And she has historically been very supportive of promoting the health and safety of people in our community.”
Despite this, Clamen claimed that others in the Liberal party are far more concerned with the “industry of antitrafficking”.
“Within the Liberal party, one of our challenges is people talk about human rights so often…but they limit their understanding of sex work to something that doesn’t actually represent most people in the industry,” Clamen said.
She insisted that the Liberals must introduce a bill on decriminalizing sex work to protect the workers’ human rights. “It’s actually that simple.”
Liberals urged to assess evidence of law on sex workers
When the former Conservative government introduced the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, there was a requirement for a review after five years. Clamen said that in the sixth year since the law was proclaimed, the Liberal government hasn’t even begun this process.
She emphasized that this review must be conducted by Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti’s office rather than being shuffled off to another member of cabinet who's not in charge of upholding constitutional rights.
"Other ministers that should be considered with sex workers’ rights, like the minister of women and gender equality [Maryam Monsef], that should be vocal about the rights of sex workers, are not."
Clamen made it clear that sex workers do not want a review of the laws to be a justification for delaying decriminalization.
In her view, that would only make life more difficult for marginalized sex workers, including migrants who fear deportation and those of Aboriginal ancestry.
“We want a review that’s actually an evidence-based review and measures the impacts of the law on the people that the laws impact,” Clamen said. “To do that, they need to lay out a very clear plan of what that looks like.”
The CASWLR has published infosheets on the impact of sex work laws on its website.
It declares that evidence demonstrates that prohibiting the purchase of sexual services decreases the ability of sex workers to screen clients.
In addition, this prohibition on the purchase of sex makes it more difficult for sex workers to establish safe indoor spaces. That makes it easier for predators to target them.
The group has also maintained that the law’s ban on a third party materially benefiting from sex work criminalizes sex workers’ personal relationships, increasing their social isolation.
According to the CASWLR, outlawing the advertising of sexual services heightens the risk that clients will misunderstand what services sex workers are willing to provide and at what price.
“The NDP party and the Green party have been extremely public about their support for decriminalization of sex work," Clamen said. "But the Liberal party has been conservative-leaning on their action around this."