Sex workers and advocates in Victoria are worried about how federal prostitution laws, which came into effect Saturday, will be enforced in the region.
“The rules and regulations are still hazy,” said Cameron Diablo, 32, who has been a sex worker in the city for two years and works from home. She does not want her real name used.
“We’re unsure about licensing, legality, if we live near schools but work indoors, landlord-tenant regulations with the new law, advertising,” she said. “The list is endless with the detailed questions my group of colleagues and I have come up with.”
More than 60 organizations and agencies from across the country are calling for the non-enforcement of the law, which they say will recriminalize sex work while recreating the harms and violence experienced by sex workers under the previous laws criminalizing prostitution.
The groups — which include the Canadian AIDS Society, John Howard Society and Native Women’s Resource Centre — want the new law repealed and the full decriminalization of sex work in Canada.
Local police indicate that, in the short term at least, little will change in their approach to sex workers.
The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act criminalizes the purchase of and profiting from sexual services, as well as third-party advertising.
The act was introduced after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down anti-prostitution laws that sex workers claimed prevented them from working safely. Local sex workers, advocates, clergy and city officials spoke against the act as it was being debated in the House of Commons in the summer.
Victoria Coun. Marianne Alto, who sent council’s letter opposing the law to the Senate and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said people could be at further risk if the law pushes sex work underground by recriminalizing the industry.
Alto said the new laws do not dictate changes or differences to licensing and business bylaws. She’s spoken with local advocacy groups such as PEERS and police about the new laws and addressing concerns for those in the sex trade.
“Like it or not, these are our people. They are Victorians, and we will try to supply a safe and secure life for all residents,” Alto said.
Sgt. Kristi Ross, of the Victoria police special victims unit, said the department’s focus will remain on the safety and support of those in the sex trade, namely on encouraging reports of violence to police.
“People in the sex trade are our community. They are our moms, daughters, sons,” she said. “We’re not interested in making life more difficult for them or pushing people to the margins.”
Ross said the department has received no directives from government on how the laws are to be applied. “That will be up to the courts,” she said.
The police do not focus on prostitution-related arrests, she said. “If there is violence involving a sex worker, that is assault and that is our main concern.”
Ross also said brothels and sex workers will not be targeted. Online investigations will continue to look for evidence of human trafficking and exploitation of underage persons.
“The most important thing for us is to increase safety and support [for sex workers],” Ross said. “I can assure them, if they come to Victoria police [or] other local stations, they will get help.”
Saanich police said they don’t have a known area where sex workers work publicly and will deal with complaints as they come in.
Chief Bob Downie said his thoughts echoed those of his colleagues at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police meetings in the summer: Preventing the victimization and exploitation of sex trade workers is a priority, along with funding for programs to assist the vulnerable and prevent community harm.
— With a file from The Canadian Press