For years, women’s advocacy groups, sex trade workers and their supporters have been lobbying and fighting the government to change the laws surrounding prostitution. The act of prostitution in Canada has never been illegal. What is considered a criminal offence is everything else pertaining to prostitution. This includes: soliciting for the purpose of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution and keeping a common bawdy house (brothel).
In essence, what this comes down to is sex-trade workers risking their safety and often risking their lives to make a living. On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous decision, struck down anti-prostitution laws and deemed them to be unconstitutional.
So what does this mean for First Nations women who make up a large segment of the sex trade population? Indigenous people see both pros and cons with the new court ruling but with Canada’s disproportionate number of First Nations women and girls in the sex trade, many feel the recent court ruling is two steps back.
According to data from a 2008 inquest, hundreds of children in Winnipeg, some as young as 8, were selling sex to adult men.
Robyn Bourgeois, a member of the Lubicon Cree nation in Alberta, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and is heavily involved in research and advocacy in bringing awareness to violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Asked what her thoughts were on the new court ruling, Bourgeois argued on both sides. She explained, “Striking down the prostitution laws is a victory in that indigenous women and girls will no longer be criminalized for what many of them do out of survival.”
However, Bourgeois sees more negative consequences coming out of this recent court ruling. In an interview, she explains, “I also concur that these laws, at least when they target prostitutes, have been complicit in making the situation of marginalized peoples more precarious and violent.”
Bourgeois explained that the problem doesn’t lie with Canada’s prostitution laws; the problem is prostitution itself. “Prostitution operates a system of oppression – it establishes dominant subjects through difference and degradation of others. It divides the world into prostitute and non-prostitute, just as patriarchy divides males from females, and racism, white from non-white.
However, when such ideological structures are threatened, violence will be used to reinforce existing relations of ruling. In this way only the abolition of prostitution can end the violence.”
On what her thoughts were on the future of prostitution laws in Canada, Bourgeois said, “I don’t want safer prostitution – I want an end to the social inequality that makes prostitution the best option for survival, which currently results in indigenous girls facing unfair odds of being trafficked and exploited through prostitution.”
In the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision, Parliament has one year to change their prostitution laws. In the meantime, current prostitution laws will stay in effect.