Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian PressPeter MacKay’s new prostitution law tarnishes the reputation of the office of the Attorney-General, John Ivison writes.
Peter MacKay’s role as Attorney General of Canada requires him to be the guardian of the rule of law. He is mandated to protect the personal liberties of Canadians and advise Cabinet to ensure its actions are legal and constitutional.
Pierre Trudeau had many deeply flawed ideas, but he was right about one thing: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
The way this country deals with prostitution has traditionally followed the idea that the government has no business interfering in Canadians’ private sex lives, so long as economic transactions for sexual services are conducted in private. Before the Supreme Court stuck down many of Canada’s prostitution laws late last year, selling sex was perfectly legal, but practices that took place in public — such as negotiating on the street and running a brothel — were illegal.
By introducing a new law on prostitution that is all but certain to be struck down by the courts, he has failed on all counts.
The new law makes it an offence for the first time in Canada to purchase sexual services, or to communicate in any place for that purpose. It makes it an offence to receive a material benefit from sexual services and it prohibits the advertising of sexual services in newspapers or online.
The main targets are “the perpetrators, the perverts, the pimps,” according to Mr. MacKay. But it also takes aim at prostitutes, if they try to sell sexual services in “public places” where people under 18 might reasonably be expected to be present.
Last December, the Supreme Court struck down the existing law on prostitution, on the basis that it diminished the security of sex workers, in violation of section 7 of the Charter of Rights.
There have been a number of studies conducted, before and since the Supreme Court decision, on the impact of shifting the guilt burden from sellers to purchasers, including one conducted in Vancouver and published in the British Medical Journal. None suggest the well-being of sex workers is enhanced – the key ingredient of any constitutional law.
When johns are targeted, prostitutes continue to take steps to avoid police detection; they are unable to screen clients and remain at risk of violence, abuse and HIV.
Prohibition of the purchase of sex is as likely to violate sex workers’ rights of security in the eyes of the Supreme Court, as prohibition of the selling of sex.
This bill is likely to make life even more unsafe for many prostitutes. If they can’t advertise their services to persuade the johns to come to them, many more are likely to take to the streets in search of business.
The government says it will spend $20-million to assist sex workers to leave the industry. But does Mr. MacKay seriously think this is going to reduce the number of women selling sex – or improve the lot of those who remain?
None of this bodes well for the long-term survival of this legislation.