Canadian sex workers rights protest in Canada

Sad Day for #RightsNotRescue in Canada

Canadian sex workers rights protest in Canada

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Morgan M. Page.

Canadian sex workers rights advocates spent years spent gaining traction through the courts with a case, known as the Bedford challenge. Three sex workers brought the case to try to overturn key sections of anti-sex work law in the Canadian Criminal Code. But yesterday a dangerous new bill gained royal assent (the Canadian equivalent of a president signing a bill) and will come into effect in 30 days. Bill C-36, unfortunately named the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act,” recriminalizes aspects of sex work through a combination of Swedish-style client criminalization and all new Canadian restrictions around advertising and street sex work.

For some background: The selling of sexual services is legal in Canada. However, in 2010 the Bedford challenge  pointed out that three sections of the law made it nearly impossible to do legally by criminalizing major aspects of sex work and unnecessarily putting sex workers (framed by just about everyone as being primarily cis women) into danger and were thus unconstitutional. Those three sections were:

  • Solicitation in a public place (CC s. 213(1)(c)): the act of giving a specific price for a specific sex act in a public place (cars and mobile phones being included in this definition of public place).
  • Running a Common Bawdy House (CC s. 210): the act of having sex for money more than once in the same physical location.
  • Living off the Avails of Prostitution (CC s. 212(1)(j)): receiving any money, directly or indirectly, from a sex worker for services rendered, including security, drivers, and even landlords.

These three sections effectively made it impossible to legally and safely do both street-based and indoor sex work.

The Bedford challenge won initially and was appealed by the Crown. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which last year decided to strike down the sections. The Court gave the government a one year grace period before its ruling would take effect and told them to spend the year crafting new and constitutional laws or else let the stay lapse, allowing for full sex work decriminalization.

The policy morons at Justice Minister (similar in some ways perhaps to the American Attorney General) Peter MacKay’s office slapped together a bill following a ludicrous ‘public consultation’ that consisted of an online survey which could be filled out as many times as you wanted. Sex workers across the country, through organizations such as Maggie’s Toronto, POWER Ottawa, and Stella (Montreal), as well as independently, spent all of 2014 lobbying hard for New Zealand-style decriminalization.

All too typically, the issue divided feminists, many of whom argued in the hearings against the voices of sex workers, pushing for Swedish-style “End Demand” criminalization of clients. The feminist importance of fostering the self-determinacy of women and other oppressed groups was sadly lost on these carceral anti-sex worker and trans-excluding feminists, sometimes literally, shouted down the voices of sex workers. Sex work appears to be increasingly a central issue in a generational divide between feminists nation-wide, with older second-wavers often heading anti-sex worker organizations and younger feminists generally supporting the autonomy of workers, made all the more disappointing in a time of decreasing access to abortion services in some provinces and increased criminalization of HIV non-disclosure.

Peter MacKreepy’s Bill C-36 breaks down like this:

  • Purchasing offense: Anyone who buys sexual services will be breaking the law.
  • Advertizing offence: Knowingly advertising sexual services would be made illegal (goodbye Backpage, Craigslist, etc!).
  • Material benefit offense: the old living on the avails (pimping) section rebranded with little more than a new name, and resulting in up to 10 years in prison.
  • Procuring offense: Another anti-pimping measure targeting third parties (such as escort agency managers), resulting in up to 14 years imprisonment, with a handy mandatory minimum of 5 years if the procured person was underage.
  • Community Harm offences: the criminalization of street-based sex work that happens in or near “a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.” Also known as basically anywhere.

The bill will have devastating impacts on the lives of marginalized cis and trans women, men, and other people engaged in sex work in Canada, as well as setting a troubling precedent internationally. POWER Ottawa summed it up in a statement released late yesterday:

“During witness testimonies, sex workers and their allies stressed to parliamentarians that the ironically named Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act would only re-criminalize their work and drive the sex trade further underground, thereby putting them at greater risk of violence.”

This is a risk that, despite the ironic name of the Act, is of little concern for the “tough on crime” Conservative Government. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they aren’t fazed by violence against vulnerable groups: this government refuses to address the issue of the over 1200 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across the country. Indigenous women, as we learned through the trial of Robert Picton (a serial killer of sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside), are disproportionately affected by the criminalization of sex work and the violence that criminalization creates.

The Conservative Government is convinced that they can help the people they’re criminalizing by providing services, and so tacked onto the bill is an allocation of $20m to fund exit strategy programs, or as they’re being called on Twitter “sex worker reeducation camps.” Run by both evangelical Christian and carceral feminist organizations – very strange bedfellows, if you ask this queen – “exit strategy” programs are forced on sex workers and generally teach “life skills” such as cooking and cleaning, in an attempt to turn sex workers into a middle class, heteronormative ideal of “proper ladies.” As Senator Don Plett said during the hearings on C-36, “you need to be treated like a lady” and that will somehow cure your whorish need to make money and pay your bills.

This is especially troubling as it may have broader implications for sex worker organizations and pro-sex worker social services across the country which may face funding cuts as a result of the government’s new exit strategy priority.

As feminists, as sex workers, as prison abolitionists, and as people invested in the liberation of marginalized peoples, yesterday’s royal assent of Bill C-36 was a major blow. But it will no doubt be the start of renewed efforts to prevent enforcement and push for decriminalization. In the meantime, show your local sex worker organizations – such as Maggie’s Toronto, POWER Ottawa, Stella, Big Susie’s, WISH Drop-In, and Pivot Legal – some love (send ca$h!).

Morgan M Page (Odofemi) is a trans performance + video artist, writer, and activist in Montreal. She works locally and internationally on sex work, trans, and HIV issues. Her website is

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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