Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone

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SWUAV, PACE and Pivot fight for sex workers' rights in Ontario appeal

There are times when I really wish cameras were allowed in courtrooms. The Ontario Court of Appeal hearing this week, where five justices contemplated the constitutionality of the Criminal Code provisions relating to adult prostitution, was one of those times. 

Unfortunately there were no cameras to capture the complexity, controversy and courage that filled the courtroom during this historic appeal. So, I have decided to write this blog to give you some of my favourite moments from the past five days.

First, some background. Last September, the communication, bawdy house and living on the avails laws were held to be unconstitutional and struck down by the Ontario Superior Court. Justice Himel’s decision was stayed (not in effect) given that the government filed an appeal. Pivot, PACE and the DTES Sex Workers United Against Violence Society formed a coalition and were granted intervenor status to participate in the appeal. An intervenor is an individual or group that is found to have a particular argument that could assist the court with the issues to be addressed. The appeal was scheduled for five days beginning on June 13 and I had the great privilege of appearing as counsel and presenting our arguments to the court.

I was there with Elin Sigurdson and Joseph Arvay, who I have had the incredible fortune of working with as co-counsel over the years. A huge team of volunteer lawyers, sex workers and other dedicated women have worked together throughout the years on this issue, and I really wished they had all been there with us.

Alan Young, lawyer and professor at Osgoode Hall, was counsel for the three sex workers that brought this case to court. Alan spent an entire day presenting the applicant’s arguments, which I thought were very effective. One of my favourite moments during his submissions was when the Court asked whether the laws deter sex workers and clients from engaging in prostitution or buying sex. He answered this way - it is ethically unsound for Canada to jeopardize its citizens in the name of deterrence. Nice. 

Throughout the government and Alan’s submissions, the justices often asked questions about analogous situations. Would it be unconstitutional if the law prevented crown prosecutors from hiring security guards to protect them or their families if they are prosecuting a dangerous accused? Would it be constitutional for the law to prevent 24-hour convenience store staff or taxi drivers from installing security cameras?

POWER (Ottawa sex worker organization) and Maggie’s (Toronto sex worker organization) were represented by Cynthia Petersen, Karin Galldin, Leslie Robertson and Charlene Wiseman. An incredible legal team, and Cynthia’s oral submissions were breathtaking. It’s impossible for me to choose a favourite moment, but one statement certainly sticks out. Cynthia told the court that not only is sex work not valued in society, sex workers are not valued. She said, to put it bluntly, nobody cares - the state doesn't care and it's reflected in these laws. 

Towards the end of the day, it was my turn to present on behalf of Pivot, PACE and SWUAV. It was an amazing experience. Not only did I feel the support of Elin, Joe and a wonderful community of Ontario sex workers who were with me in the courtroom. I also felt the strength and determination and presence of all of the amazing women that I have worked with in the DTES for the past decade, who have taught me so much about their lives and their vision for social change, and who vested me with the responsibility of bringing their perspective to Toronto during this appeal. 

The fight for legal and social reforms for sex workers has been a long and arduous one, and it began decades before I ever started doing this work. I just hope this appeal will bring us one step closer to real safety and rights for sex workers in Canada.