Supreme Court Ruling on Anti-Prostitution Laws Stirring Debate: CFUW Joins in Supporting the “Nordic Model”

If you have been following the news over the past month, you are probably already aware that the Supreme Court of Canada delivered a unanimous ruling on the Canada v. Bedford et al. case that has struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws, including prohibiting brothels, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with clients. The laws will however, stay in place for one year to give Parliament time to develop new legislation, if it chooses to do so.

The decision is already stirring up a lot of debate among feminist groups, academics, and politicians in the country, and will likely push the issues of prostitution, sex worker safety, and women’s equality to the forefront in 2014.

In 2010, CFUW’s membership adopted a position on prostitution, sharing the view with several other women’s/feminists groups (e.g. the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and others) that Canada should adopt a model similar to that in Sweden, and most recently embraced by France, which approaches the issue by decriminalizing prostituted persons, helping women and girls to exit the sex industry, and seeks to address demand for the purchase of sex by criminalizing purchasers and pimping, and raising awareness through public education. Former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, interestingly enough, also chimed in on the Supreme Court decision to express his support for Canada adopting this model in a recent op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen. In terms of Canadian politicians, Joy Smith, a Conservative M.P., has been one of the strongest proponents of the “Nordic approach”, as it’s often called.

There are however, other feminist, health and human rights groups in Canada who support the full decimalization of prostitution, including Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott (i.e. the women who brought the case forward), PIVOT Legal Society, FIRST, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and others. They believe that through the full decriminalization of the sex industry, sex workers will have their human rights respected, and will enjoy increased health and safety. Opponents of this position fear that full decriminalization will only proliferate sex trafficking, as has been the case in other countries that have adopted this approach. See this recent study “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” for more information.

These two competing visions will likely be at the centre of the debate on how best to move forward in 2014.

Irrespective of the criminal laws Canada does or does not decide to put in place in the coming year, CFUW strongly supports the Government of Canada working with provincial, territorial and municipal governments to address structural factors that limit women and girls agency and increase their vulnerability to sexual exploitation. These factors include poverty, inadequate and unaffordable housing, gendered violence, racism, and lack of adequate mental health supports and services. To ensure greater equality for all women and girls, including those involved, or becoming involved in the sex industry, we would like to see all levels of government working together to:

  • Implement national poverty, housing and homelessness strategies that are sensitive to gender differences;
  • Promote equitable access to full and productive employment and decent work for women;
  • Implement a comprehensive national action plan to address all forms of violence against women and girls;
  • Respect Aboriginal rights, treaties, and international human rights of Aboriginal Women; and
  • Improve mental health supports and services, again ensuring sensitivity to gender differences.

In the coming months it is important that Members of Parliament hear from their constituents to help shape the position that the various political parties take on this issue. CFUW Clubs and individual members are encouraged to adapt this template letter and fact sheet when corresponding with politicians. Provincial governments and municipalities also have important roles to play in the supporting prostituted women and girls, so you may also wish to write to your provincial and municipal elected representatives using this template.

See our website for more suggested actions and resources.

What are Politicians saying about the Bedford et al Decision?

To give you an idea of what position the Government of Canada, the various political parties, and key stakeholders are taking on the decision at this point, what follows is a compilation of some of the key statements and commentary made to date.

Statements by the Minister of Justice, Peter MacKay, P.C., Q.C., M.P.

“I am concerned that, with its ruling in the case of Attorney General of Canada v. Bedford et al., the Supreme Court of Canada has found sections 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) of the Criminal Code related to prostitution unconstitutional. The court has ordered, however, that these provisions remain in force for 12 months to give Parliament time to consider how to address this very complex matter. We are reviewing the decision and are exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution, and vulnerable persons. We are committed to the safety of all Canadians and the well-being of our communities. A number of other Criminal Code provisions remain in place to protect those engaged in prostitution and other vulnerable persons, and to address the negative effects prostitution has on communities.”


In another statement, Minister Mackay told QMI Agency that, “I’m not entirely convinced that the direction that has been attempted in other countries, and this Nordic model being one, is the right fit for Canada”.

Source: Sun News

Minister Mackay also said in an interview with the Prince Arthur Herald that “[i]t’s going to take a much more concerted effort than what any local government or jurisdiction could do. So for that reason I think you will find that there is a necessity within that 12-month period that the Supreme Court (of Canada) has granted that we will bring forward legislation, and amendments that will address what we think are significant harms that flow from prostitution.”

Source: Toronto Star

Conservative Party of Canada

In November, the Conservative party policy convention in Calgary adopted a resolution stating it “shall develop a Canada-specific plan to target the purchasers of sex and human trafficking markets through criminalizing the purchase of sex as well as any third party attempting to profit from the purchase of sex.”

Source: The Canadian Press


“NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin said she was in favour of drafting new legislation to deal with prostitution that does not put women’s safety at risk but draws a legal distinction between those entering the trade by choice and those who she said are being exploited….

Boivin said Canada should not simply adopt legislation from Sweden or the Netherlands, but rather develop an approach that responds to prostitution as it is carried out in this country.

‘We will have to work on the real concept of prostitution, of human trafficking – I think we will need a bigger study and I do hope the government will take the prudent approach.’”

Source: Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News

“NDP Leader Tom Mulcair…[did not] directly respond when asked if he’d consider legalizing prostitution. He said the issue is complex and needs to be studied by a parliamentary committee, hearing from police, health experts, community groups and sex trade workers.”

Source: Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

Liberal Party of Canada

At the upcoming national Liberal convention in February, the party’s youth wing is proposing a resolution to treat (and tax) the sex trade just as it would “any other commercial enterprise”.

“When asked about the resolution, a spokesperson of Mr. Trudeau’s office said, ‘ultimately, the government must respond [to the Supreme Court ruling] in a way that addresses both community safety and the security and safety of all those involved in the sex trade’.”

Source: Chris Selley, The National Post

“In French, Trudeau [said that] it is important to recognize that ‘prostitution itself is a form of violence against women.’ He called for a ‘responsible, informed debate’ on the issue.

Trudeau also said Liberals are ‘certainly going to look at’ the so-called Nordic model, which penalizes those who purchase sex, not those who sell it.”

Source: Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

Green Party of Canada

No Statements to date

Bloc Quebecois

No Statement to date

What are NGOs Saying About the Decision?

Equality-Seeking Women’s Groups continue to demand a Change in Prostitution Laws
Read the full statement here:

NWAC deeply concerned with Supreme Court Ruling on Bedford v. Canada
Read NWAC’s full statement here:

Asian Women look to Parliament after Supreme Court offers partial support for progressive position on prostitution
Read their full statement here:

A Bittersweet Victory for Sex Workers
Read the full article here:

Health and Human Rights Organizations Applaud Supreme Court Decision Striking Down Unjust Sex Work Laws
Read the full statement here:

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