TORONTO—Premier Kathleen Wynne says Ontario will follow the rules of the new federal prostitution law, even though she’s worried it may violate the Constitution and put sex workers at greater risk.
“The position we’re taking is that we’ll follow the rule of law, the law that’s in place,” Wynne said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “But I have asked the attorney general to look at the potential of unconstitutionality and to give us some options in terms of what we might do going forward.”
Wynne issued a statement the day after the new law came into effect Dec. 6, saying she was worried it would not make sex workers safer, and was openly critical of Bill C-36 in an interview this week.
“I do not believe we should be in the business of passing statutes that in fact put women, put people in this area at more risk,” she said.
Asked directly if Ontario would consider not prosecuting any prostitution charges that are laid by police, similar to what used to happen with abortion charges, Wynne said she’d leave that to the courts.
“That will be up to the judicial system, but we are going to be following the procedures that are in place as a result of the law,” she said.
A spokesperson for federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the Conservative government consulted widely on the issue before implementing the legislation.
“Premier Wynne had a year to voice any concern she had, but waited for the day after the new law came into force,” said MacKay’s spokeswoman Jennifer Geary. “A government’s first priority is to protect its citizens, in this case protection from exploitation.”
A coalition of sex trade workers and their supporters called on Wynne to not enforce the law, which criminalizes paying for sex, communicating for sex or advertising sex services.
“It would be strange, it seems to me, if the premier, having expressed grave concerns about whether the law is constitutional precisely because of the risk of harm that it poses to sex workers, would then go ahead and say ‘we’re going to enforce it in the meantime,”‘ said Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/AIDS legal Clinic. “Our unanimous message is: you should not be enforcing the law.”
Akio Maroon of Maggie’s Sex Workers Action Project said many customers won’t give their names or phone numbers for verification purposes now that they can be charged with buying sex, making it hard for prostitutes to pre-screen clients.
“This law not only opens the door, but the window and spread the welcoming mat for all sexual predators to feast on the lives of sex workers,” said Maroon. “We are calling for full decriminalization, and in the absence of that, we’re calling on Ontario to not engage in actively arresting our clients or harassing our women on the streets.”
Valerie Scott of Sex Professionals of Canada said the federal Conservative government is mistaken if it thinks it can legislate an end to prostitution.
“To have our police run around like Keystone Cops arresting consenting adults for having sex is something right out of the 19th century,” said Scott. “That would be laughable except for the catastrophic harm that it will cause.”
Many sex workers are university students who work out of apartments, and are not street savvy, and will be at greater risk by not being allowed to advertise, added Moon.
“If Peter MacKay is forcing these sex workers out on the streets and they do not have the street smarts or street skills to survive, we are putting them at risk of greater harm,” she said.
Wynne said she didn’t want to comment on the advertising ban or other provisions of the new prostitution law other than to say she wants to hear the attorney general’s options for the province.
“I’m not going to wade into the substance of it because I’m not an expert, but I’ve asked our experts to look at the law,” she said.