Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the "made-in-Canada" model targets johns and pimps while protecting the vulnerable.
The new prostitution-related offences are intended to reduce demand for sexual services, shield those who sell themselves from exploitation, and safeguard children and communities.
The bill would create new offences for:
— The purchase of sexual services and communicating in any place for that purpose, with penalties ranging from a $500 fine to five years in prison.
— Receiving a financial or material benefit from the prostitution of others, including through businesses that sell the sexual services of others online or from venues such as escort agencies, massage parlours or strip clubs.
— Advertising the sale of sexual services in print media or on the Internet.
— Communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places where a child could reasonably be expected to be present.
In addition, the maximum penalty for purchasing sexual services from children would be increased to 10 years in prison from five.
MacKay made it clear Wednesday the Conservatives see the vast majority of those who sell their bodies as victims forced into the trade due to violence, addiction, extortion, intimidation, poverty or human trafficking.
The government is devoting $20 million to helping them leave the business, and pledges to work with provinces and territories toward that goal.
"We're attempting to thread the needle on a very complex social issue. If there was a black-and-white simple answer after thousands of years, I think it would have been discovered," MacKay told a news conference.
"We're attempting this in good faith. And we believe that this will be effective."
The legislation is the government's response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision in December that struck down key provisions of the country's prostitution laws. The court was concerned the provisions unduly increased the risk to sex workers, violating their constitutional rights.
While the court ruled the laws were unconstitutional, it gave the government a year to replace them.
Under the old laws, prostitution itself was legal but almost all related activities — including communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, pimping and running a brothel — were criminal offences.
"It is important to note that the purchase and sale of sex has never been illegal in Canada. That changes today," MacKay said.
"We are targeting johns and pimps, those that treat sex services as a commodity."
MacKay suggested the courts would ultimately interpret the circumstances under which someone could be charged for selling sex in the vicinity of children, adding the police would have discretion to decide whether to act on a case-by-case basis.
One organization representing sex workers denounced the new measures.
"Frankly, this response is heartbreaking," said Emily Symons, who chairs the board of Power, a non-profit organization open to former or current members of the sex trade.
"The minister had an opportunity to work with sex workers and other concerned parties to develop a solution that supports the safety and human rights of sex workers. Instead, he has chosen to import an approach that will reproduce the harms of the current prostitution laws and won't stand up to a constitutional challenge."
Studies have shown that completely criminalizing or fully legalizing prostitution ultimately resulted in higher rates of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, MacKay said.
"This is not what a clear majority of Canadians want."
The new bill comes just two days after the Justice Department released the results of an online consultation that showed a slim majority of respondents felt that buying sex should be illegal.
However, two-thirds of the more than 31,000 respondents said selling sex should not be an offence.
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