By John Cassells
When Peter MacKay reported earlier this year that prostitution is “very corrosive” to our society, many scoffed at his moral stand. Though he hadn’t started the debate, MacKay was in the middle of it when the Supreme Court ruled our prostitution laws unconstitutional last Christmas.
Now that new prostitution laws are in place, clearly, the federal justice minister got the last word.
It all started in 2007 when York University’s Alan Young sought to have Canada’s three main prostitution laws overturned in a case called Bedford versus Canada. Young’s hope was to legalize brothels, suggesting it might a way to increase safety for prostitutes. He also asked that the so-called pimping law (living off the avails) and public solicitation constraints be stricken from the law books.
Among those who countered Young’s arguments were The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Civil Rights League and REAL Women of Canada. While it became apparent that the old laws were not very effective, it was to the dismay of Evangelicals across the country that the Supreme Court sided with Young.
The ruling wasn’t that legal prostitution was right for Canada. The ruling was that the old laws were inadequate. Ironically, it was over concern for safety that the court suspended the ruling, giving Parliament a full year to restore some sense of virtue to the matter.
In an earnest response, Justice Minister MacKay declared that the government “has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it.” He went on to promise new laws to “protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution.”
On June 4 MacKay delivered on his promise. Bill C-36 created a fundamental shift, from speaking about prostitution as a social annoyance, to understanding it as a degrading and abusive industry. At the centre of the bill was something not tried before in this country.
While the old laws had merely restricted the buyer from soliciting in public and dealing with minors, the new legislation proposed that buying sex would be completely banned.
The legislation was too moral for some. An enormous backlash ensued. On the extreme were a few, like Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno, who came out swinging in support of the men who buy sex. “What I’m most adamantly not,” she erupted, “is a feminist evangelical who will find concordance and compatibility with preachy prudes.”
Others glibly wrote the whole thing off as a political game.
Though C-36 was not able to shake its reputation as a controversial bill, the Conservative majority government provided the necessary approvals. On December 6, the new laws came into force.
Sex cannot be purchased anytime, anywhere in Canada. In contrast to that, legal immunity will be shown to the seller of sex (the prostitute), in most situations.
At first glance, the legislation might seem off balance. How can something be OK to sell, but not to buy?
The government felt it was unjust and counter-productive to punish those who are, by and large, victims, not freely choosing the sex trade. Beyond that, the government searched for a legal framework to effectively lower the risk to the prostituted. They found none. The clear path then, was to reduce the total volume of prostitution. And so decisive action was taken to reduce the demand for paid sex – by deterring the buyer. The anticipated result is that far fewer girls and women will find themselves in the sex trade, thereby being protected from its violence.
Underreported in media are the many experts who support the government’s strategy. Casandra Diamond, director of the Christian agency BridgeNorth, is nationally recognized as an authority on the Canadian sex trade. In July, Diamond explained to a House of Commons committee, “Decriminalization is not the answer, and will not wrestle this lucrative globalized industry out of the clutches of organized crime.” She went on to praise the government for their compassionate response in Bill C-36, and agreed that prohibition on the purchase of sex would offer real hope to the exploited.
MP Joy Smith, the foremost champion of the new legislation, says, “As a nation, we must ensure dignity and equality are upheld for all, especially for those who are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Bill C-36 is a significant leap forward for Canada.”
There’s no denying, Canadians are being called to a higher moral standard on the issue of prostitution. Not everyone is willing to jump on board.
Still, it’s the Canadian Constitution, founded on Christian principles, that requires Parliament to stand in support of the vulnerable, confronting those who cause harm. In this case, it seems the government has done an excellent job. Perhaps our new prostitution laws are just moral enough.
Faith Today has covered the issue of prostituted women in Canada thoroughly. Read Mean Streets (three Faith Today writers hit the streets with Christian outreach workers); a feature interview with the head of Defend Dignity (a Canadian Christian organization working on behalf of prostituted women); and Prostitution in Canada: How Evangelicals Are Working to Break the Chains (a cover story investigating the reality of prostitution in Canada).