Safety for Sex Workers a Charter Right, says Ontario Judge

The health and safety of Ontario’s sex workers came into the spotlight on September 28, 2010, when Superior Court Justice Susan Himel ruled that laws restricting prostitution put sex workers into danger.

“It’s like emancipation day for sex trade workers,” dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford told a press conference.

“Finally, somebody listened,” said Alan Young, a York University law professor who did much of the legal work on the case.

The case involved two prostitutes and a dominatrix in Toronto who challenged the laws that prevented them from opening a bawdy-house to conduct their business. They said doing business on the street put them in danger. Since 1985, more than 100 prostitutes have died in Canada, excluding the more than 100 women who have disappeared in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by other members of the public,” said Himel in her ruling, which said that existing laws violated the women’s charter rights. “Prostitution is not illegal in Canada. However, Parliament has seen fit to criminalize most aspects of prostitution.”

Judge Himel concluded that laws that criminalized operating a brothel, soliciting sex in public, and living off the money made by prostitution “are not in accord with the principles of fundamental justice and must be struck down.” Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to life, liberty and security of person and protects people from government action that puts them in danger. Notably, the judge decided that the government arguments that these laws represented “reasonable limits” as per Section 1 of the Charter had failed to convince.

The judgement will come into effect in 30 days, unless the provincial or federal governments appeal or introduce new legislation that will not endanger prostitutes.

It is likely that there will be a counter-attack on this historic ruling and the right to safety for sex trade workers.

Canada’s Attorney General and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a September 28 statement that his government is concerned about all Canadians’ safety. However, the statement emphasized the harm caused by prostitution, rather than the harm suffered by prostitutes. “We will fight to ensure that the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to both communities and the prostitutes themselves, along with other vulnerable persons,” said Nicholson.

The Christian Legal Fellowship, right-wing association REAL Women of Canada, and the Catholic Civil Rights League also sided with the provincial and federal government on the case. The Christian Legal Fellowship also ignored the reasoning that Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were resulting in the abuse and murder of women in its statement.

“By removing what safeguards exist against the exploitation that prostitution represents, this decision will make it much more difficult to prosecute pimps, or offer help to those who want to leave the life,” said spokesperson Joanne McGarry.

The Industrial Workers of the World has long encouraged sex workers to organize themselves and form unions to protect their rights and persons. This ruling is plainly a victory for sex workers in Ontario and it challenges every Canadian to think again about the health and safety of all, regardless of how they make a living.

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