Prostitution laws must change, lawyer says

A lawyer who was instrumental in the recent ruling to strike down Ontario’s prostitution laws says that while he can’t predict the future, the current system isn’t working.

On Nov. 24, Alan Young attended a panel discussion at Osgoode Hall law school to address the future of sex work following the Bedford v. Canada decision, a controversial ruling to remove prostitution laws.

Now that the federal and provincial governments are appealing the decision, Young says it’s important to recognize the problems with prostitution laws as they stand.

“The future is uncertain, but the present is certain, which is that it’s dysfunctional,” he said. “If we care anything about people who are in desperate situations and who need a safe haven, this is the decision that will hopefully make that happen.”

While prostitution is technically legal in Canada, it’s illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution, operate a common bawdy house or live off the avails of prostitution. On Sept. 28, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel struck down these laws on the grounds that they prevent sex workers from being able to protect themselves by hiring security personnel and working indoors.

The newly relaxed laws are set to come into effect this weekend unless an Ontario Court of Appeal judge decides to grant the federal and provincial governments their wish and stop the ruling from coming into effect until their appeal can be heard.

According to Young, the current laws tell sex workers to get off the streets, but don’t allow them to work indoors either. He pointed to the Robert Pickton murders, in which the serial killer chose sex workers as victims because he thought no one would report them missing, as an example of how prostitution laws can encourage violence against women.

“That’s the cost of deeming someone to be a moral outcast. You don’t get the same protection of the law,” Young said. “Regardless of what you think about the virtues or vices of selling your body for sex, even if you’re a moral outcast, you deserve equal protection of the law.

“If you don’t get the legal regime right and you marginalize populations, you shouldn’t be surprised when you start digging up bodies from a pig farm,” he added.

Lawyer Christa Big Canoe also spoke at the panel discussion. She noted that while Himel’s decision is a step forward, it’s just the beginning.

“It will take years to come, but in the building of what may come… there has to be a voice given to those who are most vulnerable,” she said.