Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

"The Obscenities of This Country": Canada V. Bedford and the Reform of Canadian Prostitution Laws

Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

"The Obscenities of This Country": Canada V. Bedford and the Reform of Canadian Prostitution Laws

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In February 2002, following a search for illegal weapons that turned up the belongings of several missing women, the Vancouver Police Department laid charges of first-degree murder against Robert Pickton for the deaths of Sereena Abotsway and Mona Wilson, two Aboriginal women working as street-level prostitutes in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (3) Over the next three years, Pickton, a pig farmer from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, would be charged with twenty-four additional murders, making his case the "largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history." (4) There is evidence, however, that Pickton may have committed even more murders--in 2002, he told an undercover officer posing as his cellmate that he "was gonna do one more, make it an even fifty," but was caught before he had the chance because he had become "sloppy." (5) At trial, prosecutors demonstrated that Pickton would travel into Vancouver, offer "money and drugs" to women working on the "low trackfs]" of the Downtown Eastside, and then bring them back to his pig farm, where he would torture, kill, and dismember them. (6)

In the aftermath of the Pickton trial, various media outlets revealed that the Vancouver Police Department had badly mishandled investigations into the over 65 women who had gone missing in Vancouver over the past two decades. In addition to "refus[ing] to say that a serial killer was at work, or even to speculate that the women were dead," police stayed attempted murder charges against Pickton in 1997 because his sex worker victim was deemed an "unreliable witness," (7) and neglected to search his property in 1999 (a search Pickton consented to), even after receiving a tip "that Pickton had a freezer on his farm filled with human meat." (8) A report produced by Commissioner Wally Oppal revealed that "systemic bias" within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ("RCMP") and the Vancouver Police Department was responsible for their "blatant failures" to investigate the disappearance of poor, predominantly Aboriginal women living in the Downtown Eastside.

While sex worker activists blamed the murders and the mishandled investigations on incompetent and biased policing, they also attacked Canada's scheme of prostitution laws. Though prostitution per se is not and has never been criminalized in Canada, the Criminal Code does penalize keeping or being in a common bawdy-house, (9) living on the avails of prostitution, (10) and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution. (11) Activists argued that although these measures were created to protect women from exploitation by pimps and johns, they precluded women from protecting themselves. (12) For example, sex workers could not hire bodyguards or drivers to provide security, or work indoors in relatively safe spaces for fear that they would be charged with keeping a brothel. (13) Indeed, the city of Vancouver relied on the "bawdyhouse [sic]" provision to justify shutting down "Grandma's House," a space established by sex-trade activists to provide "food, condoms and safe rental rooms for sex workers" (14) during the Pickton spree, when one woman disappeared from the 2 [km.sup.2] of the Downtown Eastside almost every month." (15) Sex worker activism, combined with public outcry in the aftermath of Pickton's trial and conviction, spurred the constitutional challenge to Canada's prostitution laws by former and current sex workers in Bedford v. Canada. (16) Their efforts succeeded when, in December 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated the relevant sections of the Criminal Code on the grounds that they jeopardized the life, liberty, and security interests of sex workers and failed to comport with principles of fundamental justice.

The Supreme Court was clear that its decision did not preclude Parliament "from imposing limits on where and how prostitution may be conducted," as long as those limits did not violate the Charter rights of Canadian sex workers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.