The federal government will seek to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada an Ontario ruling that effectively legalized brothels across the country, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said on Wednesday.
In Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, the Ontario Court of Appeal last month struck down a section of the Criminal Code that bars brothels, saying that forcing sex workers to stay on the street made it hard for them to take safety precautions.
The judges also upheld a section of the code that restricts street prostitution. Accepting money in return for sex is not illegal in Canada, but most related activities are. The safety of sex workers played a large part in the appeal court’s decision.
“The state response is out of all proportion to the state objectives,” the judges wrote. “While the provision is ostensibly aimed at protecting prostitutes from harm, it prevents them from taking measures that could reduce harm and at worst drives them into the hands of the very predators that the law intends to guard against.”
The federal Conservatives say the Criminal Code sections in question are sound. The Supreme Court of Canada will now have to decide whether to hear the appeal.
Nicholson told the House of Commons that Ottawa felt a “binding, national decision” was needed on the constitutionality of the laws on brothels and living on the avails of prostitution.
“Prostitution is harmful for society as it exploits Canada’s most vulnerable people, especially women,” he said.
Nicholson was reacting to a question in the House from Conservative MP Roxanne James, who said she was “absolutely horrified and saddened” by the Ontario ruling.
“Canadians . . . right across our great country are very concerned about this ruling and the impact it will have on women, families and our communities,” she told legislators.
The safety of sex workers has become a high-profile social issue in Canada since the trial and 2007 conviction of serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on prostitutes in Vancouver.
If the Ontario court’s decision stands, Ottawa may have to find new ways to regulate prostitution, perhaps by accepting legalized brothels of the sort found in Nevada.