The Conservative government's new anti-prostitution law will continue to endanger the lives of people who work in the sex trade and in some cases make things worse, sex workers and advocates said Thursday as the law received royal assent.
Ottawa revised the law to respond to a decision last year from the Supreme Court of Canada, which concluded the previous Criminal Code sections related to prostitution were unconstitutional because they made sex work more dangerous.
But several sex-worker rights groups across Canada used Thursday's royal assent to repeat their arguments that the law will continue to put women and men working in prostitution at risk.
"They have told us over and over again that this bill is intended to protect sex workers," Kerry Porth, chair of Pivot Legal Society and a former sex worker herself, told a news conference in Vancouver.
"These new laws will push sex work further underground into the darkest corners of our city."
The government has said the new bill addresses the high court's concerns because it essentially allows sex workers to work freely — including hiring protection and starting up brothels — as long as they're doing it of their own free will.
Critics, however, say provisions that criminalize the purchasing of sex, prohibit communication in many public places, and restrict advertising will largely recreate the same problems identified by the court.
Porth said criminalizing customers and public communication will lead to rushed transactions that will prevent sex workers from taking the time to screen clients.
And she said decriminalizing brothels and other forms of indoor prostitution is meaningless if sex workers aren't permitted to advertise.
"The ability to clearly communicate with clients is the most crucial safety measure that sex workers employ," said Porth.
"They will now be forced to rush or abandon these measures altogether."
Porth was joined by a half-dozen current sex workers, who wore masks and used pseudonyms.
One woman who identified herself as "Jordan Doe" said sex workers in Vancouver and elsewhere have already run into difficulties with the new law, even before it went into effect.
"Sex consumers are confused by what the rules are now and how they can safely access the services that we provide," she said.
"As a result of that, our incomes have severely been depreciated."
Some critics have suggested the updated law would be open to another charter challenge, though Porth said it could take years to gather evidence about the impact of the revised provisions and take it to court. Pivot does not have any immediate plans to launch a renewed court challenge, she said.
The Justice Department did not make the minister or anyone else available for an interview, but spokeswoman Carole Saindon defended the new law in an emailed statement.
Saindon stressed the law does not directly target sex workers and permits safety measures such as brothels and bodyguards.
"Canada is not alone in proposing criminal law reform that views prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation, a model that is receiving growing international support as a sound policy approach," Saindon wrote.
Saindon also pointed to funding to support sex workers leaving a "dangerous and harmful activity."
Dr. Kate Shannon, director of the Vancouver-based B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the Conservative government chose to ignore research that shows criminalizing any aspect of prostitution puts sex workers at risk.
"The (Supreme Court of Canada) decision was clear that the previous laws put sex workers at risk in multiple ways: by isolating sex workers, reducing their ability to negotiate transactions, reducing their access to indoor spaces," Shannon said in an interview.
"This not only ignores that, but it goes one step further in criminalizing the purchase of sex. There's a huge concern that we're going to see rates of violence and other risks go up rather than down."
Shannon said Canada should follow the example of Australia and New Zealand, which have decriminalized sex work. Those countries, she said, haven't seen an increase in sex work or violence.
"I think it's clearly ideologically driven," she said.
"A lot of evidence was not discussed (by the federal government) or thrown out."