On September 18, less than a month before the federal election, sex workers took to Parliament Hill to claim their rights as honest workers.
The protest attempted to increase awareness of federal law that fails to protect sex workers and forces them to the fringes of society, and was led by the Ottawa-based group Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work to Educate and Resist (POWER).
Chris Bruckert, University of Ottawa professor and member of POWER, explained that current solicitation laws, found in sections 210 to 213 of the Canadian Criminal Code, that criminalize soliciting or accepting money for sex, produce dangerous working conditions for sex workers.
“In the existing legal structure, sex workers who are victims of violence find it very hard to turn to the police…because they’re often criminalized,” she said.
Bruckert explained that existing legislation isolates sex workers, because anyone helping sex workers – by offering housing, recording clients’ license plate numbers for safety purposes, or sharing money with a partner – is assumed to be living parasitically off of sex work. As a result, friends, family members, and clients, can be charged as criminals.
Stella, Montreal’s support group for the city’s sex workers, protested at the POWER demonstration.
Emilie-Cloé Laliberté-Danel, a Stella outreach worker, explained in an email that current federal policies on sex work, crafted largely by the Conservative party, seek to reinforce repression against sex workers as a means of eradicating the profession.
“Criminalization…reinforces the stigma of the bad girl, sends the message to assaulters that it is okay to hurt [sex workers, that] they are criminals,” she wrote. “It also reinforces prejudices in the society and can’t allow mentalities to change.”
Members of Parliament are also criticizing the current state of solicitation laws. In 2003, in response to a string of prostitute killings and disappearances in Vancouver and Edmonton, the House of Commons decided to review existing solicitation laws through a Parliamentary committee.
Current legislation also increases the chance of HIV infection for sex workers, according to a 2005 report by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
Richard Elliott, Executive Director at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said that as the current law criminalizes solicitation in both public and private establishments, sex workers are forced to make swift decisions about accepting clients – leading to greater risk of violence and HIV contraction.
“If you’re running the risk for being arrested and charged because you’re having a conversation with a potential client on the street, then you don’t have as much time to assess that situation,” Elliott said. “You are probably then, and this is what we hear from sex workers, at greater risk to going with an unsafe client.”
Elliott, however, says that the chance of Parliament altering current laws is slim because even the Liberal, NDP, and Bloc parties – involved in crafting the House Committee report – have been reluctant to take a strong stance against the current Criminal Code.
He said there is greater hope in a favourable Supreme Court ruling.
“If the courts actually weigh in on this and declare unconstitutional some of the provisions of the existing law, that will put the issue back before Parliament,” Elliott said.
In the meantime, Bruckert, said the protests will continue.
“It continues to keep the pressure up,” she said. “Hopefully people are talking about it and it’s something people are thinking of.”