Manitoba is calling on the Harper government to adopt the "Nordic model" that cracks down on pimps and johns but not prostitutes.
In a letter sent this month to his federal counterpart, Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan detailed his views on what Canada's new prostitution law should look like. Swan said the law should target the demand for sexual services while helping sex-trade workers get the addiction counselling, mental-health services and training they need to get off the streets.
"It should make any purchase of sex illegal, period," said Swan in an interview. "But we should decriminalize the victims of sexual exploitation."
Swan said crafting a fair prostitution law is complex, but targeting demand will decrease the number of sex-trade workers who are murdered or go missing. And it will reduce the levels of coercion many young women face from pimps and sex traffickers.
Key elements of Canada's confusing prostitution laws were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada late last year. The Harper government has pledged to rewrite the law by year's end, sparking a national debate over what fair and effective legislation might look like.
Manitoba is now the first province to publicly advocate for the Nordic model, and it makes Swan unexpected allies with Conservative MP Joy Smith, a vocal opponent of sex trafficking. She also favours the legislative framework common in countries such as Sweden and Norway where the exploitative activities of pimps and johns are illegal but prostitutes don't face any criminal sanctions.
"I applaud him for doing this," said Smith. "It's exactly the way to go."
Smith said she is lobbying her caucus and federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay hard, asking them to consider the Nordic model, and she expects other provinces will join Manitoba in calling for that approach.
The Supreme Court ruled clauses in the Criminal Code banning street soliciting, living off the avails and keeping a brothel were unconstitutional because they put sex-trade workers at significant risk of violence and even death. The ruling left Canada's anti-prostitution laws in limbo and some provinces have already suspended prosecutions. The top court gave the Harper government a year to rethink the law.
MacKay has expressed concern over the court's decision and has said outright legalization is not an option, but he has expressed a willingness to consider the Nordic model.
"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," he said in a statement late last year.
A spokeswoman for MacKay said Friday the minister had nothing new to add, even in light of Manitoba's position. Work on drafting new legislation is progressing, she said.