by Arwen McKechnie
More news on the Bedford decision! It’s been covered a couple times already here at Gender Focus, but if you missed the articles, let me recap: the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down all three of Canada’s existing laws pertaining to prostitution, on the grounds that they pose an unacceptable risk to the safety of sex workers by marginalizing and criminalizing their work.
As you might imagine, the current government was none too happy with this decision. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has promised to have new legislation on the books before the Supreme Court’s ruling goes into effect and the laws are officially struck down next December.
A more cynical person might take that to mean that the Justice Department already has some idea of how they want the new legislation to look, as a year is a relatively short period of time to create new legislation on such a complex and controversial social issue.
So, it is with some surprise that I can tell that the Justice Department is holding online consultations to get some public feedback on the Bedford decision and inform the new coming legislation.
Sounds good, right? Excitingly collaborative for a government that has frequently disdained the feedback of academics and interest groups alike, in favour of pushing forward their own agenda. There has to be a catch.
According to some, there is; Chris Bruckert, associate professor in the criminology department at University of Ottawa, asserts that both the synopsis and subsequent questions are designed to lead respondents to view sex work negatively. In particular, the introductory synopsis (for anyone who accidentally wandered onto the webpage without knowing anything about the Bedford decision, I guess) makes broad assumptions about how most sex workers view their work, the danger sex work poses to the broader community, and gives a false choice between the various international models. Professor Bruckert rightly points out that the models are explained without the context that the Supreme Court decision might have on their implementation.
Personally, I think the concern expressed in Bruckert’s interview with the Ottawa Citizen is a bit alarmist. It seems likely that most people who take the time and make the effort to be part of this consultation process will already have strong views on the Bedford decision and what should follow, which would negate the impact of any leading or suggestive phrasing in the introduction. Of course, it’s possible that I’m biased because I didn’t expect any kind of public consultation, so even a flawed process seems like a positive development to me.
The word limit is unfortunate, especially for question three: “If you support allowing the sale or purchase of sexual services, what limitations should there be, if any, on where or how this can be conducted?” This is an incredibly complex question to answer in the space of 500 words.
While I don’t like the way question four is framed, I disagree with Professor Bruckert that the question is a manipulative attempt to introduce the spectre of human trafficking into debate over the avails statute. I think she is in some ways blinded by her own expertise: she appreciates that the avails law has been used to prevent sex workers from purchasing services to make their work safer, by preventing them from hiring drivers, or call screeners, but I’m not sure that the average person does. I suspect that most people automatically associate the avails law with anti-trafficking or pimping efforts, so I have to give credit to the Department of Justice for outlining the other services that are prohibited by the statute in their introduction.
I think the question would have been better framed by asking if it should be legal to purchase services to facilitate sex work, rather than focusing on the profit side of the equation. But again, this is coming from a government that is explicitly opposed to any kind of decriminalization or harm reduction effort. I’m more than happy to count this as a win.
All this is to say that, while the public consultations are an imperfect process, they represent an important concession to public opinion from a government that has frequently pursued its own agenda, regardless of public outcry. The long-gun registry, for instance, was discontinued and the existing records destroyed, despite protests from victim’s rights advocates, women’s rights groups and police associations. If there had been a public forum for the average person to speak up and condemn that decision, would the eventual outcome have been different? It’s impossible to say.
What is possible to say is that civic engagement is at a low ebb in this country, and people who have strong views on any topic should make their voices heard and opinions known.
Have your say here: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cons/curr-cours/proscons-conspros/index.html.
(photo of red megaphone by Adamantios, CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)