Election 2015: Bill C-36 and sex workers’ rights — Canada’s major federal parties respond

This is the third in a series of blog posts being published by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network ahead of Election Day on October 19, 2015.

Recently, we sent a questionnaire to the five major federal parties, asking their position on key questions related to HIV and human rights. Four out of five parties responded. Their responses are shared here, along with our comments. See www.aidslaw.ca/election2015 for more information.

October 7, 2015

It is now well recognized, not just by sex workers but by a wide range of health researchers, human rights organizations, and agencies such as UNAIDS, that punitive laws and policies governing sex work, including the criminalization of some or all aspects of sex work, undermine the health and safety of sex workers, including by contributing to risks of violence and of HIV.

In a welcome ruling in December 2013 (the Bedford case), the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down several sections of Canada’s Criminal Code dealing with “prostitution” as unconstitutional because they unjustifiably endangered the lives and safety of sex workers.

The federal government responded by enacting Bill C-36. Misleadingly named the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, the bill re-inscribed many of the very harmful laws the Supreme Court had just found unconstitutional. It has been widely condemned by sex worker groups, their allies and a wide array of health and legal experts. (See our Q&A on the new law.)

We asked major political parties whether they would support the repeal of Bill C-36 and whether they would meet with sex workers to discuss ensuring their rights, safety and dignity.

All parties agreed that Bill C-36 was flawed legislation that failed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Both the NDP and Bloc Québécois believed the bill should have been sent to the Supreme Court for review.

  • The Liberal Party said it was “committed to replacing this flawed, unconstitutional legislation,” recalling that the Liberal caucus opposed the bill in parliament. The Liberal Party also said it would “deliver on prostitution reforms laws [sic] formed in consultation with experts and civil society, including sex workers themselves, which includes rigorous examination of supporting facts and evidence.” 
  • The Green Party declared it “would immediately repeal Bill C-36 and work constructively with sex workers to draft legislation that ensures their rights, safety and dignity. Bill C-36 targets sex workers, a disproportionate number of them transgender and Indigenous, forcing them into greater secrecy and leaving them more vulnerable. We need laws that ensure the safety of sex workers, rather than endangering them further. Greens will undertake legal reform in Canada based on the New Zealand model [i.e., decriminalization]. We must provide more robust funding for social services focused on harm reduction, and assistance for those who wish to disengage from sex work.” 
  • The New Democratic Party noted that, during Parliament committee hearings into Bill C-36, “witnesses expressed almost universal disapproval of the government’s decision to criminalize women involved in prostitution, despite the Bedford ruling [of the Supreme Court of Canada]. It stated it would “engage with sex workers and others to build a comprehensive strategy to better protect and support women.” 
  • The Bloc Québécois stated its concern for the health and safety of sex workers, saying, “[o]ur position [has been] that the Criminal Code provisions on prostitution endangered the health and safety of women sex workers.” Unlike the other parties, it expressed a preference for reducing the demand for sexual services by criminalizing clients (an approach criticized by sex worker rights advocates): “The Bloc Québécois acknowledges that the ‘Nordic’ approach, aimed at reducing demand for sexual services by criminalizing clients rather than prostitutes themselves, has some merit. The Bloc Québécois is no more in favour of prostitution than any other party, and does not seek to encourage it.” The Bloc acknowledged that “the “Nordic” approach leaves issues unresolved,” and could “have perverse effects on the health and safety of women,” but did not address the harms sex workers and allies have highlighted as associated with this legislative model. 

The issue of sex workers’ rights and repealing Bill C-36 was also raised at the “Proud to Vote” debate, co-sponsored by the Legal Network in Toronto on September 24, with a focus on LGBTQ community concerns — and a number of the candidates participating were decisive in stating their party’s support for repealing Bill C-36.

The Conservative Party of Canada did not respond to the questionnaire.

For more information: