There's no consensus among Canada's police chiefs on what the federal government should do now that the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down three of the country's prostitution laws.
The top court gave Justice Minster Peter MacKay until the end of December to draft new legislation. In addition to online consultations with the public, the department asked for input from police. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police initially tried to come up with a common position paper but found members had too many points of view.
Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson puts it this way, "The law enforcement community ranges from 'legalize it all, they're all Julia Roberts from Pretty Women' to those who agree with us and everything in between."
In his submission to government, Hanson told the government to outlaw prostitution altogether. However, Hanson doesn't actually want his officers to charge sex workers. "I think that you can create a series of laws where you can come down hard on the user and that you look at the provider as a victim," he says.
If that sounds like the so-called Nordic model of regulating prostitution, where selling sex is legal but buying it is not, Hanson makes it clear that it isn't.
Hanson says officers need the law as a tool to give them access to victimized men and women who were coerced into sex work. "Then you have courses of action to move that person towards treatment or counselling or getting them out of that lifestyle."
York Regional Police Chief Eric Jolliffe says that's exactly how his officers had used the laws until the Supreme Court struck them down, "We take a very victim-centred approach. We haven't, in fact, charged a prostitute here in five years. But we have been able to extract, using the authorities that are given to us today, over 110 people over the last several years."
Jolliffe says having the power to arrest someone for prostitution, even if officers don't use it, helps police get behind the closed doors where the mentally ill, abused and those addicted to drugs have been forced into sex work.
Ottawa University law professor Carissima Mathen says it's commendable that police chiefs are thinking this way. However, she says criminalizing prostitution on the promise of enforcing it in a one-sided matter is risky. She says there's no way to guarantee officers would apply the law in the same manner across the country.
"The problem with keeping the law on the books is that they essentially are asking for the discretion to use the law as they see fit," she says. "But as long as the law is on the books it will have an impact on at least some of the women. And the Supreme Court has ruled that unacceptable because it makes their lives more unsafe."
According to Mathen, there are things the government can do, just short of an absolute prohibition on prostitution, to ensure the safety of prostitutes and help prevent their exploitation, such as restricting where and how sex work is carried out.
"But all of these require essentially accepting that some sex work is going to happen and that there are ways it can be done that don't lead to the harms that clearly concern some of these people, including the chiefs of police," she says.
Durham Regional Police Chief Mike Ewles didn't send a position paper to the government because he says he doesn't have a clearly defined opinion on how the government should regulate prostitution.
When it comes to the proposal to outlaw it though, "I think it really poses a significant risk. It's something we would have to think about very, very carefully."
Like his colleagues in York and Calgary, Ewles is also focused on helping the exploited and prosecuting abusive johns and pimps. He just doesn't think criminalization is the answer.
"We might drive it under into a subculture there that is so difficult for us to investigation and infiltrate and deal with," he says.
Ewles has also given considerable thought to the consenting adults who want to run regulated businesses. "I really struggle with the notion of the individual's right to freely engage in what is essentially the second-oldest profession. We're not going to eliminate it."
He says he doesn't necessarily have a problem with people such as Terri-Jean Bedford, the Toronto dominatrix who led the challenge against Canada's prostitution laws.
"Bedford is an entrepreneur wants to ply her trade and do her trade. She's a willing participant. I don't necessarily have a problem with that. Where I have a problem is for those people who are being extorted, assaulted, coerced into it."
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