Pity poor Peter MacKay. He looks like he's having about as much fun rewriting Canada's prostitution laws as he would be having if he had to perform a root canal on himself using nothing but a crochet needle and a compact mirror. Who could blame him? Trying to find the right law to reflect current attitudes on prostitution isn't exactly easy. The odds are good that Canada's prostitution laws will be back before the country's highest courts soon enough. Why? Because the new legislation fails to address the fundamental problems that caused Canada's prostitution laws to be challenged and struck down in the first place.
The Government released a report on its consultations regarding Parliament's response to the Supreme Court decision last December striking down several prostitution-related offences in the Criminal Code. Regrettably, the information made available about the consultations raises more questions than it answers, and leads one to query whether an informed debate will occur.
For far too long, Canada's approach to prostitution has been to treat prostitution, and specifically the women involved in it, as a nuisance and not as a form of violence against women. This approach must change. We must shift our approach to recognize that women in prostitution have the right to dignity, equality and most of all, to be free from exploitation and violence.
Now that the government's hand has been forced, let's hope it will take the view of prostitution it should have all along: seeing and treating it as work. Work that can involve danger and nuisance, yes. Work that most of us would strongly prefer our grown children did not choose. But work just the same. And work that will take place whether the government bans it or not. As the Supreme Court's decision recognized, harsh criminal penalties aren't an acceptable way to address the harms of the sex trade because these penalties just force prostitution underground, making life unconscionably dangerous for sex-workers.
This week the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a landmark appeal in the case of Terri Jean Bedford that challenges the constitutional validity of the sexual solicitation and bawdy house laws. The court will also consider whether the criminal offence of living on the avails of prostitution should be limited to situations of exploitative conduct.