Canada's Liberal Party votes to support the decriminalisation of sex work

North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent
Source (institute/publication)

Last weekend in Halifax at their biannual national convention, the Liberal Party voted yes to a resolution for consensual sex work decriminalisation. The resolution was presented by the party’s youth caucus, the Young Liberals of Canada, and is part of several resolutions that push for a more progressive Liberal Party. The Liberal Party are currently the largest party in Canadian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau.

"Young Liberals do have the opportunity, if the process allows, to make significant change. And I think this process definitely allowed for that," says Mira Ahmad, president of the Young Liberals of Canada. “The Young Liberals argue that the current regime puts sex workers at risk and doesn’t address underlying issues such as access to sexual health care and their relationship with police.”

The Liberal Party’s convention site includes the full text of the motion. It states that ‘the current Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which prohibits the purchasing of sex, does little to protect sex workers and instead pushes them to work underground and in dangerous conditions’. The resolution says the party will ‘begin a consultation period with those in the sex work industry and advocacy groups, and move to decriminalize consensual sex work, and the purchase of said sex work, for those over the age of 18’. It also says it will consult with ‘surrounding communities… to ensure the[ir] safety and wellbeing’ and work to improve sex workers’ access to health services.

While the vote to pass the resolution as policy is being celebrated, many sex workers and advocates are sceptical about implementation. Noted in Huffington Post Canada: “Even if the Young Liberals' proposal to decriminalise consensual sex work and the sex trade is approved by the majority of delegates on Saturday, there are no rules requiring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to adopt the policy.” Criticisms against the Liberal Party’s silence around sex workers’ rights have been ongoing even before this year’s convention.

Jenn Clamen from STELLA said: "The Liberal party is constantly failing to live up to their public relations campaign," she told VICE. "They disrespect the Charter and have ignored the Supreme Court of Canada [on the] Bedford decision; they are anti-feminist in that they promote policies that encourage police in the lives of women, particularly black, Indigenous and migrant sex workers. They are in no way protecting sex workers' rights."

It has been four years since the Bedford Supreme court case – while it successfully challenged the country’s prostitution laws, the outcome of the Bedford case also unfortunately became a way for the Conservatives to vote in harmful amendments. One of these amendments was Bill C-36, which created bans on ads for sexual services and criminalised the purchase of sex. Bill C-36, or The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), became law on June 12, 2014. Despite opposing Bill C-36, the Liberal Party hadn’t made any effort to repeal the law before last weekend’s convention.

"This is not an issue that politicians want to touch," Kerry Porth, a board member with Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, told HuffPost Canada. "It's a very disappointing time for sex workers in Canada. They're feeling very demoralized… I think sex workers are getting a bit tired of waiting, and a bit tired of paying with their lives."

The only other major challenge to the PCEPA comes from a recent court case in Ontario. Last February third party charges against escort agency owners were challenged as unconstitutional. “Led by Toronto lawyer James Lockyer, the defense has put forward a motion to argue the constitutionality of those charges, saying it violates sex workers’ right to the security of person.”  All but three of the charges were dropped and the case itself is said to be “testing the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws.” The case is currently making its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.