Momentum is building for a new prostitution law modelled on Sweden's rules, heralded by Conservative MP Joy Smith and favoured by Manitoba's NDP government.
But some local and national experts say importing the Nordic approach will do more harm than good, and could wind up before the Supreme Court of Canada again.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay wrapped up public consultations on a new prostitution law earlier this week, and legislation is expected before MPs break for the summer. A new law was made necessary late last year when the Supreme Court struck down key elements of Canada's patchwork of anti-prostitution rules, a move which sparked a low-grade national debate over how to regulate the sex-trade.
Smith, the MP for Kildonan-St. Paul who penned an influential position paper on the new law last month, has been a vocal advocate for the Nordic model, which seeks to eliminate the demand for prostitution by banning the buying of sex. The model, at work in Sweden and Norway, criminalizes johns but not the prostitutes themselves or the selling of sex.
The substantial body of evidence clearly weighs in favour of the idea that prostitution is very harmful to women and it isn't a choice'
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan has also come out in support of the Nordic model, the first provincial justice minister to do so. There's a growing expectation among legal experts and sex-trade advocates that the Conservatives will propose some version of Sweden's law.
But some local and national prostitution experts, including the University of Manitoba's Shawna Ferris, say the Nordic model is seriously flawed and will put women in just as much danger of violence as the old rules. Under pressure from johns worried about police detection, women won't have time to check out a john's car, compare him with the bad-date list or clearly negotiate fees and safe-sex measures. Because buying sex is illegal, the Nordic model also condemns street prostitution to even more remote and dangerous locales, and further isolates women who have been trafficked.
And, said Ferris, there is no reliable evidence prostitution or human trafficking declined in Sweden, where the model has been in place the longest.
"It contributes to the stigma and it pushes sex work underground and fuels exactly the kind of things the Conservative government wants to stop," said Ferris.
Both Ferris and U of M law Prof. Karen Busby said any law patterned on Sweden's would likely get struck down again by the Supreme Court as an unconstitutional infringement on the safety and security of sex-trade workers.
But Smith said she's read reams of research that suggest the Swedish model has curbed organized crime and has not sparked an increase in violence against sex workers.
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan agreed, saying the most recent summary he read found Sweden's law reduced street prostitution, significantly curbed human trafficking and lowered the number of men who reported paying for sex.
"Those are strong and very meaningful ways the law has been effective," said Swan.
Swan also noted the European Union voted last month to endorse the Nordic model as the way forward for member countries.
Underpinning the Nordic model is the notion the sex trade is a form of violence against women and all prostitutes are victims who have been coerced onto the streets by a pimp, an addiction or childhood sexual abuse. That view is shared by many women's advocacy groups in Canada.
"The substantial body of evidence clearly weighs in favour of the idea that prostitution is very harmful to women and it isn't a choice," said Smith.
But other advocates such as Ferris and Sandra Ka Hon Chu of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network dispute that characterization, saying it robs women of their autonomy and condemns them to victim status without recognizing that, for many women in poverty, prostitution is a rational, if undesirable, job that ought to be fully protected.
"(Smith's position) begins on a flawed premise and goes from there," said Ferris.
"It ignores a growing body of research that suggests there have not been positive changes as a result of the Swedish model."
Advocates for outright decriminalization -- an option MacKay has hinted he does not favour -- say New Zealand's model makes more sense. There, buying and selling sex, including at brothels, has been legal for the past decade, regulated only by basic health, safety and labour rules. A parliamentary research paper created in 2012 said the number of sex workers, both adult and underage, appears to have held steady over the decade, but working conditions have improved somewhat.