Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

How changes to prostitution laws shifted the way police tackle the issue

The number of prostitution-related charges has dropped in the Halifax region and in Nova Scotia districts covered by RCMP as they focus on traffickers. Cape Breton Regional Police, by contrast, launched a large sting targeting johns.

Some Nova Scotia police forces focus on johns, while others investigate traffickers

Staff Sgt. Darrell Gaudet of the Halifax Integrated VICE Unit said the law change has prompted his team to focus on young victims. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

More than two years after a controversial federal bill came into force that changed the laws around sex work, police forces in Nova Scotia have taken different approaches to prostitution cases.

While most files investigated by Cape Breton Regional Police have focused on people who buy sex, RCMP and Halifax Regional Police officers have tended to concentrate on those who are trafficking women and girls.

"Our most serious cases [are] dealing with young persons that are victimized," said Staff Sgt. Darrell Gaudet of the Halifax Regional Police VICE unit.

Fewer charges

The number of prostitution-related charges filed by provincial RCMP and Halifax Regional Police has dropped since the law changed in 2014. CBC News obtained statistics that show 44 charges were laid 2013. Last year, the total was 24.

It's unclear how many charges led to convictions as many cases are still before the courts. The statistics do not include charges laid by municipal police forces outside the Halifax region.

The drop is primarily due to the fact that prostitution is now treated as a form of sexual exploitation, rather than a crime. An entire section of the Criminal Code focusing on the criminality of prostitution was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013.

New federal legislation was subsequently drafted, and in November 2014 Bill C-36 became law. It targeted people who buy and exploit sexual services in Canada.

'A real eye-opener'

In September 2015, Cape Breton Regional Police charged 27 men with obtaining sexual services for consideration. The sting, called Operation John Be Gone, was aimed at cracking down on men searching for prostitutes in Sydney's downtown core.

"We felt we had to do something to deter and protect these women from further exploitation, and we felt the undercover operation was the best way to enforce Bill C-36," CBRP Staff Sgt. Jodie Wilson said.

An additional three charges were laid following the sting, including one count of receiving material benefit from sexual services and one charge of procuring a person to offer or provide sexual services.

Staff Sgt. Jodie Wilson of Cape Breton Regional Police. (Steve Berry/CBC)

The law change prompted a new mindset in the department, said Wilson, leading officers to treat prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.

"It was a real eye-opener once we developed a rapport with some of the women on the street, to learn what they're actually subjected to and the violent acts by johns and pimps," she said.

"We realized that a lot of these women aren't there by choice."

What Sweden does

Canada's revised prostitution law follows the Nordic model. Sweden first introduced changes in 1999, and has since touted a dramatic shift in demand.

"We can see that it's a bad market for the traffickers," said Det. Insp. Simon Haggstrom of the National Swedish Police Force.

"We can see quite clearly the effect of the legislation that it is not socially acceptable to buy sex in Sweden at all."

Det. Insp. Simon Haggstrom of the National Swedish Police Force speaks to a conference in Yarmouth, N.S. (Steve Berry/CBC)

Haggstrom visited Yarmouth, N.S., this week to speak at a conference about how he investigates trafficking cases. He also met with police officers in Halifax and Truro.

The Swedish officer insists that focusing on clients is the most effective approach.

"You have to go after the pimps and the traffickers, and you should do that. But you also must go after the johns," he said. "I think you are in the same place here in Canada as we were after two or three years with the legislation back in Sweden. It takes some time for a new law to be enforced."

No free passes

According to officers with the Halifax VICE unit, johns don't get a pass. Since 2015, seven people have been charged for communicating for the purpose of obtaining sexual services.

Gaudet said his biggest challenge currently is taking care of his team's mental health.

"I have to keep an eye on my investigators, make sure they're not burnt out because it is very taxing work," he said. "They become emotionally involved in the cases and sometimes that leads to burnout."

In the Halifax VICE unit, there are two dedicated officers. Gaudet said when he worked on the city's prostitution task force the early 90s, there was a team of 12 investigators.

Now, his unit focuses on the most serious cases where "someone has been victimized."

"The victims have to feel safe before they're going to testify," he said. "One of our main goals is to get the youth and the victims off the street, to get them to a normal life. They're being victimized and we're trying to stop that."