“Caught in the Crossfire and Not by Accident”: In Canada, the Legislation was Just the Beginning

By Zoë Goodall | Traduction Française

In 2014, the Canadian Government passed The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), which criminalised third-party profiting (pimping) and purchasing of sexual services, and largely decriminalised selling sex. It was the end result of a political and legal battle that began in 2007, when sex industry representatives Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott went to the courts to challenge aspects of Canada’s Criminal Code that discriminated against people in the sex industry.

PCEPA was contentious to say the least. While it decriminalised selling sex, which Bedford and her supporters wanted, its provisions against purchasing and pimping were designed with the end goal of abolishing prostitution completely. The Conservative Government liked its law and order approach, but the biggest supporters were the women’s movement – including various rape shelters, the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada – who saw it as Canada’s leap for the Nordic Model.

The Nordic Model is a policy framework that was first made law in Sweden, in 1999. Rooted deeply in ideas of gender equality, and ushered in alongside other policies to help women, it contended that decriminalising sellers and criminalising purchasers was the best and safest way to abolish prostitution. Canada’s current laws are similar, but retain the criminalisation of both parties if they’re caught “communicating for the purposes of providing” sex near schools and playgrounds. Both pro-abolition and pro-full decriminalisation advocates argued strongly against this, but were not listened to.

PCEPA, although viewed as imperfect, was argued for by the women’s movement for two key reasons. Firstly, prostitution in Canada is marked by a severe overrepresentation of Native women and Asian women, demonstrating the country’s ongoing colonialism. Secondly, high levels of violence are perpetuated against women in the industry. This is not unique to Canada, but the Canadian serial killer Robert Pickton – who targeted Native women and women in the sex industry – is only a recent memory.

After spending my Honours year researching the parliamentary hearings that took place prior to the law’s implementation, I went to Canada and interviewed several activists from the women’s movement. The law’s five year review is approaching, and I wanted to find out what PCEPA had achieved in that time.

However, it quickly became clear that the interview was not going to go the way I’d thought.

“Nothing,” said Trisha Baptie, when I asked her what changes she’d seen since 2014. A survivor of prostitution and founder of EVE (formerly Exploited Voices now Educating), Baptie was frustrated. “They didn’t roll it out right. Some people think we got the Nordic Model, but all we got was the legal framework – that they’re not even using.”

Lee Lakeman, a long-time activist and worker at Vancouver Rape Relief since 1978, had a similar attitude.

“The national government changed, right in that moment,” she explained. “We went from a Conservative government that was only interested in the law and order agenda, to a Liberal government, still with a neoliberal economic framework, but they wanted to be seen as more liberal than they are. So we got caught in the crossfire and not by accident. This has happened many times before, where slightly-feminist legislation gets passed just before the change of government and so neither party has to carry out the intended sense of the victory.”

The activists explained that the police in Vancouver, and British Columbia more broadly, were refusing to implement the 2014 laws. Keira Smith-Tague from Vancouver Rape Relief told me that because of the Vancouver Police Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines, which openly say they won’t enforce PCEPA, “we’re living in a de-facto decriminalised regime here in British Columbia.”

Law enforcement in Canada is highly fragmented. The police exist under two different bills, Lakeman explained. There’s police at the provincial (equivalent to state) level and police at the federal level, and most cities have independent police forces too. There’s been some enforcement of PCEPA in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Nova Scotia, according to the activists. But it’s nowhere near what it should be.

“The category of prostitution had something like 500-600 arrests per year [in Vancouver],” Suzanne Jay, from Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, told me. “…then in the last two or three years, it’s been maybe two, maybe three, investigations or responses to prostitution-related incidents. So what should have happened, when the law came into effect, is that the number should have stayed there at 500, but it should have been flipped to arrest the men, not the women.

“But instead the police chose to arrest nobody. And investigate nobody.”

The police inaction can be traced back to politics, and the conflict between Conservatives and Liberals.

“They are claiming to be more liberal than what they identify as a conservative law,” says Lakeman. “They’re refusing to implement it in the name of recognising ‘the plight of prostitutes’. So it’s another double-fuck, you know? They are lying about support for women in prostitution and they refuse to implement what little we got from the Conservatives.”

How can police forces simply refuse to enforce the laws of the country due to their politics? Easily, if the head of the country is silent about it.

“Early on in [Trudeau’s] campaign we understood him to maybe be pro-Nordic Model,” says Jay. “He did say he didn’t think women should be arrested.”

Lakeman contends that Trudeau certainly implied he’s not in favour of prostitution continuing, but she and Jay agree that his advisors are.

“So the closer he got to victory, the less he had to say about that,” says Jay.

But of course, the criminalisation of purchasing and third-party profiting is only one part of the Nordic Model. The most important element is the introduction of comprehensive exit services, alongside public education. The Conservative Government promised $20 million CAD to exit services over five years, an amount that was criticised by many as being way too small considering Canada’s vast size.

“We never got any of the implementation or funding of social services to support the exiting… but mostly, who gets what little money they awarded are those who can be seen to be on the fence [about prostitution],” says Lakeman. “Those service providers pretend that they can’t say they’re against prostitution, because that would turn off the women. Which is, of course, bullshit. What it means is that women don’t know how to find the genuine, pro-woman exit service that is available to them and can actually provide something to them. … The [$20 million] went somewhere… it’s not like we’re busy referring to them, because there’s nothing yet.”

The activists were blunt that they had not seen an increase in women exiting prostitution. In response to recent claims that criminalising clients has made them more violent and dangerous, Keira Smith-Tague asked some women currently in the industry if they’d noticed a change.

“Many women in prostitution told me they didn’t notice a change in men’s behaviour after the law was introduced,” she says. “Some didn’t even know that there was a change in law.”

Feminists in favour of the Nordic Model like to imagine that once the laws are passed, everything will go smoothly. But Canada proves that passing legislation is just the first part of the battle. The Canadians I spoke to are up against both the Conservative and Liberal Governments, where the former has “a serious attachment to criminalising some of the people who had the least power” as Lakeman puts it, and the latter won’t do anything at all. When the very women the law is supposed to support are unaware that the law exists, the situation is dire.

The activists I spoke to haven’t given up, though. As well as preparing for the five-year review, they’re campaigning around factors that coerce women into prostitution.

“Our group [the Asian Women Coalition] has turned to basic income in Canada,” says Jay, “because poverty is one of the reasons why women are made vulnerable.”

“I don’t see this law as the main event, I think it’s one spoke of many in the wheel – there is also an immigration issue, there’s a basic social service issue – for all women,” says Lakeman. “It’s just worse for prostituted women, or some of the worst-off women end up prostituting… I started arguing for guaranteed liveable income because of the attacks on welfare.

“If they’re isolated from each other they become minimal reforms, it’s in combination that they make any difference to the numbers of women.”

As bleak as things may seem, they contend that some good has happened because of the fighting they did to get the laws. For a start, they agree that the roles of Asian and Native feminist abolitionists are more high-profile than ever before, because of organisations like the Asian Women Coalition and Native Women’s Association of Canada arguing that prostitution disproportionately harms women of colour.

Jay contends that they have something to offer to groups who would usually call for “shaming-the-women campaigns to get them out of the neighbourhood”. They can tell them there’s an alternative, which is to pressure the police to target johns. “…it gives us more substance, to promote a more feminist approach… because it doesn’t take a lot to get them to admit that who they’re afraid of is the men who do the cruising [driving around looking for women to proposition].”

Furthermore, being in favour of the Nordic Model has become a well-known political stance in Canada. “We had no legitimacy,” states Lakeman. “We had nothing but our own solidarity to argue that it’s possible to deal with prostitution. We have gained a lot of authority as a legitimate voice in the debate, whereas before that we were just a crazy fringe.”

“I think we did succeed at getting our position as the opposing position in the media,” says Smith-Tague. “It was very much the Nordic model versus full decriminalisation as the two positions. Which, I think, is a huge success, given that we were the minority in the Bedford case.”

The case of Canada demonstrates that the Nordic Model is far more complex than just passing legislation. Politics, law enforcement and existing legislation are powerful factors. The Government can promise $20 million for exit services, and yet four years later, they’re still lacking. The Government can criminalise the purchase of sex, and yet four years later, some women selling sex are still unaware of this.

Some people will say this is evidence that the Nordic Model can never work. I’m sure there are other people who will wish I hadn’t written this article, for fear it will be used as that kind of evidence. But this is the truth about what’s happening in Canada, and it does no good to hide from it. Rather than demonstrating that the Nordic Model doesn’t work, it demonstrates that a having a half-committed Nordic Model doesn’t work. Of course Canada’s framework isn’t effective, when there’s a refusal to criminalise buyers, the Conservative Government wants to criminalise women in street prostitution, and no one will properly fund exit services. Pro-Nordic Model feminists were “caught in the crossfire and not by accident”, as Lakeman puts it; set up to fail from the start. What they have managed to achieve, and the work they continue to do, should be applauded.

Zoë Goodall wrote her Honours thesis on how the experiences of Indigenous women were taken into consideration at Canada’s Bill C-36 deliberations. She lives in Melbourne and works at Pink Cross Foundation Australia, a not-for-profit that supports women and men in the sex industry.

7 thoughts on ““Caught in the Crossfire and Not by Accident”: In Canada, the Legislation was Just the Beginning

  1. Dear Ms. Goodall,
    I would like to translate this great report into French for Quebec and French audiences. Can you authorize this, please? Thank you for this vivid portrait.
    Martin Dufresne

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