Cops tread cautiously on feds’ new sex worker law

Budget pressures and concerns about sex worker safety - not to mention the constitutionality of the new law - are pushing progressive police forces across the country to evaluate their enforcement approach


Four months after Canada’s new anti-prostitution law came into effect, a strange thing happened on the way to the crackdown the HarperCons seemed to be hoping for. 

A handful of police forces – among them Saskatoon, Calgary, Montreal, Victoria and Vancouver – declared that they would not enforce them. Turns out more police forces are following suit. At least, that seems to be the consensus among the police department spokespeople we talked to. Save for the odd exception, most claim the new law hasn’t changed the way they handle prostitution.

Real information about how laws are being applied can only come from defence lawyers and prosecutors who are in the courts every day, and right now there just isn’t enough data. 

Anecdotally, at least, police seem more inclined to exercise discretion than order sweeps, for budgetary as well as philosophical reasons. On the street, meanwhile, sex workers are still experiencing heightened feelings of insecurity, says Jean McDonald, executive director of Maggie’s, a Toronto-based sex workers’ action project. Maggie’s is part of a nationwide coalition that has called on the provinces to order police not to enforce the law. Premier Kathleen Wynne, who’s expressed “grave concern” that the law will not live up to its stated objective of keeping women in the sex trade safe, asked her attorney general to review its constitutionality. Sex workers say criminalizing johns will drive the trade further underground. But no deadline was given.

For the record, here’s what police departments we spoke to had to say about how the new anti-prostitution law is being enforced – or not. 

Toronto According to Chief Bill Blair’s spokesperson, Mark Pugash, the new law hasn’t changed the way the force is dealing with prostitution. They continue to rely on complaints. Pugash says public safety is the force’s “highest concern,” but he seems to be talking more about residents’ concerns than the safety of sex workers. “If the complaints we get require us to use tools we didn’t have before, then we will do that.”

Ottawa Acting Inspector Mike Laviolette of the Ottawa Police Service’s Central District, where most of the city’s sex work takes place, says police were already conducting semi-regular sweeps for johns before the new law came into effect. The new law has empowered them to go after johns in new ways, he says. Where before they used offences like “impeding traffic” to stop johns, they’re now charging them with communicating for the purpose of procuring sex. He says johns, not sex workers, have always been the focus of his department. As for the new law: “There’s some good things in there, some things we’d like to see different. But we work with the law we have. We can suspend operations, but my phone doesn’t stop ringing from residents calling to complain about condoms on their driveway.”

Montreal Service de police de la Ville de Montréal’s Chief Inspector Johanne Paquin says police are meeting with the director of prosecution from the criminal courts in a few weeks to work out how they’re going to deal with the new law. He says the force is continuing to prioritize the goals in its 2013 plan: fighting human trafficking, keeping minors out of the sex trade and working on issues with street prostitution.

York Region One of the officers overseeing York Region’s vice squad, Detective Sergeant Peter Casey says the new law has changed the department’s focus. The force is spending more time on human trafficking. “Not that it was legal before, but the government did say when proposing the bill that this was something they wanted to focus on, so we’re putting some of our focus on that,” he says, “particularly those who are seeking the services of young girls in the sex trade under the age of 18.”

London Constable Ken Steeves, a spokesperson for the London Police Service, says the service doesn’t have a dedicated vice squad but does conduct initiatives throughout the year to regulate sex work. London also has a dedicated officer who works with the city’s sex workers to help them remain safe and make a change of lifestyle if they want to. Unfortunately, Steeves says, there are not enough resources to be more proactive in that regard. “Most of the time our officers are going literally call to call,” he says. 

Winnipeg Sergeant Cam MacKid of the Winnipeg Police Service’s Counter Exploitation Unit says they haven’t charged sex workers with any of the offences struck down by the Supreme Court since fall of 2013. “The focus is still on the johns or the pimps or the exploiters,” he says. “The definitions [in the new law] are a little broader on what we can charge the johns with. But discussions are still going on with Manitoba Justice about a few things we’d like to try, so it would be kind of premature for me to discuss those. 

“I do see some avenues where we could maybe do some different kinds of enforcement with regards to online activity. We just want to make sure, when we start out with a new initiative or new enforcement technique, that it’s been well thought out and we’ve discussed it with our partners at Manitoba Justice so we know we’re on strong footing.”

Regina The Regina Police Service has only recently begun charging people under the new law, according to Detective Constable Josh Potter of the vice service. It took that long to update their system for laying charges. “When it comes to enforcement on the worker, we’re a lot more restricted now, so it really narrows down where we can do that. With the customer, [the new law] opens up where we can do enforcement. [Instead of] just doing street-level enforcement in public places, now we can do enforcement in private places such as hotels.”

Edmonton Staff Sergeant Jamie Clover of the Edmonton Police Service’s vice squad says the force is still feeling out the new legislation. “Historically we’ve always focused on the demand side, the exploitation side, and tried to make sure it was a safe sex environment. It hasn’t changed a lot. But what it has done is force us to look at the way we have operated and the way we will operate in the future. Particularly anyone profiting off another person’s sale is becoming more of a target for us.

“It’s tough for us to maintain a trusting relationship with front-line sex workers, escorts, people who work in body rubs, with all sorts of people, when really what the legislation is saying is part of this transaction is illegal and part of it is legal. It’s hard for regular people to understand, so we’re struggling with that a little bit.”

Vancouver Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Sergeant Randy Fincham says the new law hasn’t changed police’s decision-making process on the street. “Police still have the opportunity to exercise discretion when enforcing federal law,” he says. “Whether it’s a law that relates to a john or to a sex trade worker, we’ll look at the individual offence,” he says.

Halifax The force hasn’t used the new law yet, says Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Constable Pierre Bourdages, and there hasn’t been a conversation about how it might be used, although the force has also changed its focus in the last year and a half to look at vulnerable persons exploited in the sex trade. “We follow up with any complaints we get, but at this time we don’t have any charges in front of the courts in relation to the new law.”

Peterborough Deputy chief Tim Farquharson says the force’s last prostitution project was in 2000. “We stopped doing street-level projects. If you’re doing it for the numbers to impress the police board and media, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s not about ignoring laws. The whole thing should be, are we making the community a better place? 

“I’m not trying to tell other people how to do their job, but the way we’re going to do it, that’s not changing. There are laws there. But do we have to enforce everything when what we’re really talking about is a health issue?”

With files from Andrea Houston

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