Sex workers, supporters rally against Bill C-36 | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Sex workers, supporters rally against Bill C-36

The bill could recriminalize activities surrounding sex work

Red umbrellas were fitting for June 14's rally in support of sex workers. Many of the 40 or so people who attended carried them, not only to shield their bodies and signs from the pouring rain, but as an international symbol against discrimination.

Advocacy organizations and people in the industry gathered in cities across the country last weekend to protest a new bill they say makes it more dangerous to work in the sex trade. Sex work has always been legal in Canada, but the activities around it, including brothels and communication for the purpose of prostitution, have been criminalized. It's these laws in particular the Supreme Court found last December violated sex workers' Charter rights to safety and security. The court gave parliament one year to pass new legislation before existing laws would be struck down.

The government's response is Bill C-36, which if passed will amend the Criminal Code to, among other things, make it illegal to buy sex, advertise sexual services or sell sex where minors could be present. However, sex workers and advocacy organizations say the proposed amendments recriminalize the activities around sex work that the Supreme Court struck down.

"In some ways this is actually worse than what we have," Halifax MP Megan Leslie said over the megaphone at the Halifax rally. Not only that, but the government is rushing the proposed legislation through, she added. As expected, the bill passed its first reading Monday and will be read and debated a second time, and referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

Prior to releasing the bill, the government consulted with 16 organizations—11 of which did not represent sex workers. It was a "false consultation" that was "set up to give the government what they wanted," says Fiona Traynor, chair of the Halifax advocacy organization Stepping Stone. Criminalization of the activities around sex work has killed four people Traynor knew.

Adult sex workers need human rights and health protection, and the resulting legislation will be challenged again, she predicts. "Peter MacKay, he's going to have blood on his hands," she says of the Nova Scotia politician who introduced the bill.

Since the Supreme Court decision, adult sex work exists in a "legal void," says Halifax Regional Police chief Jean-Michel Blais. To his knowledge, no charges relating to adult sex work have been laid in Halifax since the December 30 decision. HRP has been watching the case closely, but must wait for final legislation before deciding how policing might change.

Recently, HRP has moved to an understanding that sex trade workers are vulnerable people who shouldn't be re-victimized. As recently as five or 10 years ago, the view was that it's a sex worker's choice to be in that industry, and if they die, that's their problem, the police chief says.

"It's society's problem," Blais continues. "We have to be able to treat them with the same respect as we treat anyone else in our society."

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