Sex workers and their supporters marched and rallied in several Canadian cities Saturday to call for the decriminalization of prostitution, days before a Supreme Court hearing on whether laws restricting the sale of sex should be tossed out.
Dozens of demonstrators brandished red umbrellas — a symbol for sex workers’ rights — and chanted “Sex work is real work, decriminalize now” at a Toronto march, saying the laws subject street sex workers to harm by forcing them to make snap decisions about whether a client could turn violent.
“All over Canada today women are demonstrating for their freedom and safety,” retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford told the crowd in a downtown park, steps away from a stretch of sidewalk where the city’s sex workers often ply their trade.
Bedford is one of three women behind an Ontario challenge of the prostitution laws that, after six years of hearings, rulings and appeals, has landed on the docket of the Supreme Court of Canada.
“This is not just about sex trade workers. This is about every Canadian who enjoys their right to privacy,” Bedford told reporters.
“The government’s coming in through the back door and they’re going to tell you what you can and cannot do in the privacy of your home with another consenting adult — for money or not.”
Nearly two dozen intervener groups have been granted status to argue for and against the sex laws on Thursday before the high court judges.
A street sex worker at the Toronto rally who gave her name as “Shalimar” said it’s hypocritical for the government to outlaw the sex trade while sexual activity is otherwise widely tolerated.
“Why are they so morally pushed in on us?” she asked, adding she has been harassed by police in her two years as a prostitute.
Bedford said she hopes the laws will be thrown out and the Criminal Code amended accordingly.
“This is not the beginning of the end it’s merely the end of the beginning,” she said.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, though many of the key activities surrounding it are banned under three sections of the Criminal Code.
In a 2012 ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the section that forbids brothels, but upheld a ban on communication for the purposes of prostitution, which effectively makes street prostitution illegal. It also dealt with the criminalization of living on the avails of prostitution, making it clear that exploitation of prostitutes should be illegal.
In Montreal, several dozen people gathered downtown in support of the legal challenge.
Sex workers in the city have been under the spotlight recently because of Sunday’s Grand Prix Formula One race. The week leading up to the event is one of the industry’s busiest of the year, leading to dangerous situations for sex workers who are often forced to take on more clients.
Advocates for decriminalization say Montreal police have made it more difficult in recent years for sex workers to do their job safely. They argue police repression has pushed prostitution into more isolated parts of the city and made sex workers more vulnerable to violence.
“People have a lot less time to negotiate with their clients so they are a lot more likely to hop into a car with someone before they get a chance to figure out if this person is safe or not,” said Robyn Maynard, an outreach worker with Stella, a sex-trade support and advocacy group.
Michael Hendricks, a 71-year-old Montrealer at the rally, said he wanted to show his support for those involved in the legal challenge.
“We want them to know that we’re there, we’re behind them, and we care.”
In Vancouver, about two dozen people rallied in front of the city’s downtown art gallery calling for an end to all prostitution laws.
Among them were representatives from several interveners in the case, including Pivot Legal Society.
The group’s lawyer, Katrina Pacey, said they want the Supreme Court to go further than the Ontario Court of Appeal.
“What that law (against street prostitution) has done is that sex workers can’t take time to screen clients, it displaces sex workers to very dangerous parts of the city, it means they can’t access police protection ,” said Pacey, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a red umbrella.
B.C. is a province where the safety of sex workers has taken on particular importance, with the Robert Pickton case still fresh in the minds of advocates and politicians.
Pickton was arrested in 2002 and eventually convicted of murdering six sex workers, but the remains of dozens more were found on his farm near Vancouver.
The case spawned a public inquiry that wrapped up last December, with a litany of recommendations to keep sex workers safe, though the report made no comment on whether the current laws should stay or go.
Susan Davis, an outspoken Vancouver sex worker, said there are already laws to protect women like her.
“Assault is illegal, unlawful confinement is illegal, kidnapping is illegal, human trafficking is illegal,” Davis said.
“We don’t need two sets of laws to protect people. When they put two sets of laws in the Criminal Code, it separates us as different, and it needs to end.”
Demonstrations were planned for six cities on Saturday, with the others including Ottawa and Victoria.
With files from Ben Shingler in Montreal and James Keller in Vancouver