Two weeks ago, 11 women in Moncton were arrested for prostitution-related charges.
The arrests were explained by an RCMP press release which stated: “The operation is part of an ongoing effort to curb sex trade activities in our community. The Codiac RCMP’s primary objective is to ensure safe homes and safe communities for all citizens.”
The arrests elicited a strong response from various women’s advocates in the community, including myself.
I’d like to take this moment of shared community attention on the issue of sex work to speak to why these arrests are disturbing.
First and foremost, if we’re going to talk about sex work, we need to know that Canada’s laws on prostitution are a bizarre affair and currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada. The deal is that prostitution is actually perfectly legal in Canada; it’s certain activities that are criminalized if they are done in relation to prostitution (hence the fact that charges “prostitution-related”). Specifically, there are three laws in our Criminal Code that relate to activities surrounding prostitution: a law against the operation of bawdy houses, a law against living off the avails of prostitution, and a law against communication in public for the purpose of prostitution.
These laws are being challenged as being in violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects our right to life, liberty, and the security of the person. The argument is that these laws increase the danger surrounding prostitution by preventing sex workers from working indoors at a fixed location, prevents sex workers from hiring security guards, drivers, etc. (as the guard or driver would be living off the avails of prostitution), and preventing sex workers from taking the time to screen clients in public for suspicious behavior, intoxication, etc.
This challenge was first heard in an Ontario court that struck down all three laws, but instituted a stay in the ruling taking effect so that the Federal Government could appeal. The federal government subsequently appealed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice resulted in the communication law being upheld, but the other two laws changing. The ruling on the appeal removed mention of prostitution from the bawdy house law (effectively letting the law stand, but with no relation to prostitution), and the living off the avails of prostitution was narrowed to only criminalize situations of exploitation. After the appeal ruling, the case was brought to the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was heard this June. Until a decision is issued by the Supreme Court (and possibly for a period afterward) the stay remains in place.
It’s interesting to note that the Ontario court that heard the appeal included in their ruling an acknowledgement that “the provisions are aimed at the harm to the interests of the community. There is no evidence of a broader objective of controlling the institutionalization or commercialization of prostitution, with the ultimate aim of eradicating or discouraging prostitution.”
So, abolition of the sex trade isn’t the law’s endgame, as of yet; reducing prostitution-related harm to the community is.
This is the crux of what I find disturbing when we talk of prostitution: our conception of community. The police arrested 11 women in Moncton in the interest of safe community; the Criminal Code criminalized certain activities when done in relation to prostitution for the sake of community.
I have to point out: sex workers are, in fact, community members and they are often the members of our community who are most at-risk of violence and harm, particularly if they’re engaged in survival or street sex work.
According to accounts of the bust that were shared with us by a service provider, the women arrested in this bust were solicited by undercover RCMP members. They weren’t necessarily working at the time; they were in public, and they were known sex workers. At least one of the women arrested was reportedly only known to the RCMP as a sex worker because she disclosed her status as one when reporting a crime committed against her.
Busts like these also cut sex workers off from services; when individuals are arrested for prostitution-related offenses in Moncton, they’re often given a restricted area ban that prohibits them from being in the place they were working at the time of arrest. Given the nature of Moncton’s sex trade, restricted area bans often encompass the downtown area and cut sex workers off from resources like the YWCA, AIDS Moncton, the Salvus Clinic, etc.
It also makes it clear that the RCMP are not a resource for them — even when they aren’t working, even when they’re the victims of crime — and does little to support sex workers in exiting the trade or engaging in prostitution in a more legally-compliant (and, ideally, safer) manner. In other words, busts do little but sweep workers off the streets for a short period of time, while further marginalizing them in the process.
We need to look to jurisdictions like Vancouver for ideas of how to better address sex work as a community. For example, the Vancouver Police Department’s “Sex Work Enforcement Guideline” stipulates that “The VPD does not seek to increase the inherent dangers faced by sex workers, especially survival sex workers. Therefore, where there are nuisance related complaints against survival sex workers, alternative measures and assistance must be considered with enforcement a last resort.”
After the backlash to the bust, the Codiac Regional RCMP announced that they will be striking a task force on sex work in the Moncton area, and will work with numerous stakeholders (including the community organizations that spoke out after the bust) at the table with them. Representatives from the RCMP stressed that this will be a collaborative group and that the RCMP will not be its leader, but one of the many stakeholders present. The RCMP’s quick response to the backlash, coupled with their commitment to a collaborative approach in addressing the issue of sex work in Moncton, bodes well for the task force.
Beth Lyons is the associate director of YWCA Moncton. Her column focuses on equality issues and social justice and appears every other Thursday in the Times & Transcript.