In the city where serial killer Robert Pickton picked up more than two dozen women from the Downtown Eastside sex trade, the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that essentially decriminalizes prostitution was greeted with relief by advocates and city politicians.
And many said Vancouver likely will not have to make many changes because both police and the city have moved to new policies that emphasize protection for sex workers over charges and prosecution.
“For us, it’s an incredible victory. And, here in Vancouver, we have a template in place other cities can draw on. We’ve already been doing something,” said Sue Davis, who a sex worker for 28 years and a vocal advocate for changing the law. “I do hope now there will be a balanced approach across the Lower Mainland – across the province.”
The Missing Women Inquiry into the Pickton murders heard from many people who said Canada’s prostitution laws put the victims at risk.
Because the current law makes it a crime to communicate for the purpose of prostitution or to provide a support service, many women on the street in the worst parts of town would face criminal charges if they tried to hire someone to watch out for them or negotiated with clients about conditions.
A lawyer working with PIVOT Legal Society, also impressed with the court decision, said the city is a step ahead of many others.
“Vancouver had to face this in a way that probably other cities didn’t,” Elin Sigurdson said. “And the [Vancouver police department] has agreed to make policy that’s much more humane.”
But Ms. Sigurdson said there is still a lot of work to do, as the ruling keeps the law in place for a year until a new one can be written. Within hours of the court ruling, some groups called for a new law with the same kind of controls as the old one, because they believe either that decriminalizing prostitution would lead to more exploitation of women or it would wreak havoc in communities where prostitution is rampant.
Laura Dilley, acting executive director at the prostitute-advocacy group PACE, hopes that does not happen.
“We call on the government to reject these calls and work with sex workers to develop approaches that respect the agency, dignity, and rights of sex workers,” Ms. Dilley said in an e-mail.
But, in Vancouver, much of that battle is over.
The police department formally adopted a new policy last year that makes charging people for prostitution a low priority.
“Our policies already reflect the concerns of the Supreme Court,” police spokesman Constable Brian Montague said Friday. “The safety of sex workers is a priority for us and enforcement is a last resort.”
The Vancouver police, which created a new post for a sex-worker liaison, has seen its charges for prostitution plummet in the past decade, from a high of 513 in 2003 to 47 in 2012 and 69 so far this year.
The City of Vancouver this week voted to adopt new bylaws it has been working on in conjunction with sex-workers’ advocacy groups that essentially treat brothels like any other business.
City councillor Kerry Jang said the court decision validates everything Vancouver has been working on.
“The law forced people underground,” Mr. Jang said. He added that the city got rid of bylaws that were specifically aimed at massage parlours (the euphemistic name for brothels).
New bylaws spell out rules for any business that creates a community disturbance or employs people under 19 when it is not allowed to.
“It makes the rules very even. Then if we do an inspection, it’s not on a discriminatory basis,” Mr. Jang said.
B.C. Attorney-General Suzanne Anton, a former Vancouver councillor, said in an e-mail her ministry will assess the decision’s effects on the province.
“I will be discussing the ruling with my federal, provincial and territorial counterparts and working to find long-term solutions to protect vulnerable and at-risk women.”