It was a moment of elation and celebration. Not only for thousands of Canadian sex workers, but those in the labour movement who, like this author, consider themselves advocates of the battle to end violence against them. I am referring to the decision by Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice that ruled the Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution contribute to the dangers faced by sex-trade workers. Justice Susan Himel said: “These unconstitutional provisions should be of no force and effect, particularly given the seriousness of the charter violations.” She was referring to those laws that, in effect, make any exercise in prostitution, which is not in itself an illegal act, a criminal operation. These laws are prohibitions on keeping a common bawdy house, communicating for the purposes of prostitution and living on the avails of the trade.
These ‘moral’ laws may be justified by some as necessary to protect society from the ‘evils’ of prostitution. However, rather than decreasing this ancient trade they manage to force vulnerable sex workers from the safety of their homes and workplaces to facing violence on the streets. Sex workers advocacy groups successfully challenged these prohibitions as a violation of charter rights of security of the person and freedom of expression.
“It’s like emancipation day for sex-trade workers,” said Terri-Jean Bedford, one of those who brought the government to courts over the subject. She then repeated what the judge had said, challenging Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s court and his government to “take a stand.”
The government decided to take a stand alright. But maybe not in a way that was hoped by the judge and sex worker advocates. The Victorian ladies and gentlemen that fill the majority of Parliament seats and, even more so those who fill the Conservative Cabinet, have struck back to try and negate the decision of the court. They clearly showed pandering to their right-wing base is of more importance to them than the safety and charter rights of sex workers in this country. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Rona Ambrose, Minister for the Status of Women immediately said their government is “seriously considering an appeal” and it didn’t take long for them to be joined by the Liberal provincial government of Dalton McGuinty. So both powerful governments joined forces to appeal the ruling.
A Toronto Star headline said it all: “Celebration short-lived for Sex Workers.”
After succeeding in winning the Ontario courts to their side advocates of a safe, violence-free environment for sex workers have to take on the power of the governments of Ontario and Canada.
This is a challenge, however, that sex workers and those in the labour movement should welcome and tackle head on. Valerie Scott, a renowned labour advocate and sex worker, called the ruling “an amazing victory.”
“We don’t have to worry about being raped and robbed and murdered,” she said. “This decision means that sex workers can now pick up the phone, and call the police and report a bad client. This means that we no longer have to be afraid, that we can work with the appropriate authorities.”
She is already dreaming of more. Of sex workers setting up labour unions, health standards, compensation programs, and even pension plans.
These ‘dreams’ should now be demands that sex workers and the labour movement as a whole should fight for. The experience has shown that sex workers should not just put trust in courts and rulings to do their work for them, but organize and fight, like any other worker, for their rights, and against outdated laws detrimental to their labour. We should expect the New Democratic Party to be on their side in this battle, for the NDP is not only the party of the working class in this country, but also its only voice for progressive values.
New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos welcomed the ruling and said federal Tories should accept it and look foward to a “brand new era.”
The NDP and the labour movement should mobilize their forces and fight for a nation-wide decriminalization of the sex trade. They should also fight for good jobs and programs that will offer free education and training for those who are ready to leave this precarious trade and start a more mainstream career.
Prostitution is undoubtedly an ugly phenomenon. It is characteristic of a class-based society that forces women to sell their bodies to maintain a living. Those of us who fight for an end to violence against sex workers and their criminalization also dream of a day when nobody would be forced go down this path for survival.
Meanwhile, however, the safety of women and sex workers needs to be firmly established. Their ability to work in a free and fair environment should definitely come before the excessively moralism of the Harper and McGuinty governments.
Arash Azizi is a member of Toronto Young New Democrats and NDP club at the University of Toronto.