Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's residents split on sex work decriminalization

The idea of decriminalizing sex work in Canada is supported by at least one St. John's city councillor, and a resident in a part of town that's seen tension with the sex trade, but not everyone agrees it's a good idea.

Federal Liberal Party passed motion to decriminalize at policy convention last week

At a demonstration in the U.S. protesters call on people to rethink their beliefs about sex work. (REUTERS)

A proposal to decriminalize sex work in Canada is strongly supported by at least one St. John's councillor but not everyone in the city agrees it's a good idea.

Coun. Hope Jamieson believes decriminalization will make sex work less dangerous.

"It would mean that there would be safe places to work. I think that when we regulate industries it makes it safer for the people who work within those industries to go to work every day," she said.

Jamieson was reacting to a motion to decriminalize sex work that was adopted at a federal Liberal Party policy convention in Halifax last week.

That motion is a long way from translating into legislative changes. In fact, political watchers believe a bill proposing that change is unlikely before the next federal election.

Jamieson said if it does happen, decriminalization would force St. John's to change its regulations about sex work, something she says is already beginning to happen.

St. John's Councillor Hope Jamieson believes decriminalizing sex work would improve safety for people working in the industry. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"It would mean that we would need to find a place for sex work within our development regulations and in fact that's what we are already doing in lifting the ban on massage parlours in St. John's."

In 2015 a cap was placed on how many massage parlours can exist in St. John's.

Jamieson said that moratorium remains in place until the city's development regulations are revised — a process currently underway.

No need for change

In downtown St. John's, not everyone on Water Street agrees with the decriminalization of sex work.

"It should stay the way it is now," said Cathy Murdoch. "I think [the current legislation] is working and the system is working and it should stay the same way that it is."

Cathy Murdoch doesn't believe the rules governing sex work need to change. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

In 2013, The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country's anti-prostitution laws in a unanimous decision, and gave Parliament one year to come up with new legislation.

The court's decision struck down laws prohibiting brothels, living off the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with clients. The top court ruled the laws were too broad and "grossly disproportionate."

In 2014, then prime minister Steven Harper passed the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act which aimed to crack down on customers and sellers of sex services.

"Today our government is making prostitution illegal for the first time," then justice minister Peter MacKay said in a written statement at the time.

Not working for everyone

A member of a group that represents residents in a St. John's neighbourhood where tension with the sex trade has been high supports decriminalization.

"I think most of the residents would agree with me that we would very much look forward to a decision like this," said Robyn LeGrow, of the Tessier Park Living In Community committee.

She hopes legalization of sex work would move it off the streets of her neighbourhood and make the industry safer for people who work in it.

Robyn LeGrow says residents of Tessier Place have been waiting a long time to see their concerns addressed by the city. (Paula Gale/CBC)

"Legalizing the sex trade would actually help the women. Most of the residents are concerned for the safety of the women," said LeGrow.

"We hear them be accosted by men late at night. We hear them being chased by men. If we provided a safe legal place to do the work they are doing, it would allow regulation and safety for the women."