Bella Clava has been a sex worker in Toronto on and off for many years. She prefers to use this pseudonym to protect her identity, as she’s also a social worker and mother of one young daughter. “A lot of people believe that sex work is inherently violent, but I don’t believe that,” she told me. “What makes it violent are the laws that force us into situations where we don’t have time to screen the people that we’re going to be doing business with.” Last year, she got sick and had to live off Employment Insurance, and decided to go back to sex work to make ends meet. “Without it, I don’t know how I would have made it. I was living off next to nothing and had to provide for my daughter. When I was too sick to work, sex work gave me an opportunity and it saved my life.”
Last Friday, Bill C-36, the new federal anti-prostitution legislation that criminalizes those who buy sex (known as “the perverts” to Justice Minister Peter Mackay) officially came into force. (The timing was unfortunate as it coincided with the national day of action for violence against women.)
Under the new law, it’s also illegal to “knowingly advertise an offer to provide sexual services” and get “material benefit” from the sale of sex. Bella Clava says she and other sex workers have no idea how to prepare for life under this new regime–but they are very worried. This sentiment is shared with hundreds of people across the country who are outraged by this legislation, to the dismay of the bill’s supporters. Here’s a roundup of the best responses so far:
“I think that it’s a really sick and twisted day for it to happen … that day should not solely be for women who were murdered by Marc Lepine, it should also be for women who were murdered by Robert Pickton” – Valerie Scott, former sex worker and one of the women behind the Bedford case, told the Canadian Press
“The most obvious conclusion is Canada’s government has passed a law it knows to be unconstitutional, banking on it being long gone from office by the time the hypothesis is proven. That is more than a little twisted.” – John Ivison, the National Post
“If you’re devalued, and you’re slinking around trying to make a living and you’re taking chances – because of the bad law you’re trying to avoid being caught by police, because you’re scared of the police. You’re going to be a victim. You’re going to be prey.” – Monica, an Edmonton sex worker, told the Edmonton Sun
“Now magazine started taking sex ads because we take ads, that’s how we support ourselves and we have always refused to discriminate against sex work and sex workers” – Alice Klein, Now magazine’s editor and CEO
“If the justice minister had listened to any legal experts when crafting this legislation, Premier Wynne wouldn’t now be forced to sort through this mess” – Peggy Nash, NDP MP for Parkdale-High Park
“Bill C-36 is not going to stop the real problems of human trafficking or abusive pimps who threaten or addict vulnerable girls into prostitution. Those activities were illegal before and no new law is going to stop them. Prostitution isn’t known as the oldest profession for nothing.” – Lorne Gunter, Edmonton Sun
“Whether sex workers or engineering students, the women who die at the hands of the men who hate them aren’t murdered because they were wearing short skirts … or because they made the wrong choices. They die because laws and policies that are supposed to protect them are written by men like MacKay, who can’t see past the end of their own privilege” – Madeline Ashby, author
“Far from addressing sex trafficking, this new law adds to a long and destructive string of government responses to violence against indigenous women … criminalization reproduces another version of a long history of colonial state-violence executed against indigenous women ‘for their own good’ ” – Julie Kaye, assistant professor at the King’s University College, wrote in the Edmonton Journal
“We are writing to ask that you refer [Bill C-36] … directly to the Ontario Court of Appeal, so that it can determine whether the contents of this new legislation are constitutional. We are requesting that you do this before pursuing any prosecutions under these laws; we are further requesting that you direct police not to enforce any provisions of this Act.” – A letter to Kathleen Wynne signed by 25 Toronto city councillors
“My priority in this debate is to ensure that our laws and institutions enhance the safety of those who are vulnerable – in this case, sex workers: a class of (mostly) women, who are disproportionately the victims of sexual and physical violence … The attorney general of Ontario is bound to enforce the Criminal Code. And she will. But I have also asked the attorney general to advise me on the constitutional validity of this legislation, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Bedford case, and our options as a government in the event that the legislations’ constitutionality is in question.” –Kathleen Wynne, premier of Ontario
“It’s appalling that 25 Toronto councillors have jointly sent a letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, asking her to refer Bill C-36 to the Ontario Court of Appeal … Law enforcement agencies, communities and women’s groups have welcomed our approach in Bill C-36 because they know first-hand that activities around prostitution are harmful to women and for society … The legalization of their activities is unacceptable to Canadians, as are elected officials who call for police to be ordered to ignore laws. It’s time for Toronto councillors to stand up for the marginalized and vulnerable.” – Joy Smith, Conversative MP for Kildonan-St. Paul, wrote in the Huffington Post
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