PM 'a bad boy': sex worker in prostitution challenge

One of the sex workers at the centre of an Ontario Appeal Court hearing that could decriminalize prostitution in Canada has a message for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

One of the sex workers at the centre of an Ontario Appeal Court hearing that could decriminalize prostitution in Canada has a message for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"PM Harper, you've been a very bad, bad boy," dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, as she smacked a whip on her hand, told CBC News Monday. "He's afraid and I haven't even touched him yet.

"You're supposed to be the father of our country. You're supposed to protect all our citizens, great and small. But you're acting more like a deadbeat dad and for that, you need to be punished."

Ontario Justice Susan Himel last year struck down three key anti-prostitution laws — keeping a common bawdy house, communicating for the purposes of prostitution and living on the avails of the trade. The judge ruled that the laws made prostitution more dangerous.

Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford holds a riding crop as she talks to media outside an Ontario court in Toronto in November 2010. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)
Bedford, along with sex workers Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch had argued that the laws force them from the safety of their homes to face violence on the streets.

A five-judge Appeal Court panel began hearing an appeal of that ruling in Toronto on Monday. The federal and Ontario governments are appealing Himel's ruling, arguing there is no obligation to maximize the safety of prostitutes, because it is not a constitutionally protected right to engage in the sex trade.

In court, federal lawyer, Michael Morris, argued that prostitution itself is dangerous and the harms are posed not by the laws, but by violent pimps and johns. But the judges at times appeared incredulous at the government's claims.

"I find it hard to understand why it's not self-evident that these provisions harm the ability to carry out prostitution safely," said Justice David Doherty. "These are things that just as a matter of common sense make the business of trading sex safer."

Justice James MacPherson asked if Morris could name any other legal occupation in Canada — prostitution itself is not illegal, though many of the key activities are — in which people are prevented by law from taking basic steps to protect themselves.

Morris started talking about drug dealers, but MacPherson stopped him. "Drug dealer?" the judge said. "That's illegal. Prostitution is legal."

Morris said it's up to Parliament to decide how to deal with prostitution, which he calls an economic activity and not a right protected by the charter.

In an interview with CBC News, lawyer Alan Young, acting on behalf of the sex workers, said the onus is on the government to prove the Ontario court ruling was wrong.

"Remember, we are coming from a very strong judgment in our favour. So, the pressure's on the Crown to show the Court of Appeal how this judge erred in terms of [her] 131-page exhaustive judgment. So, they have a tough uphill battle ahead of them."

Most women in the sex trade in Canada are consenting adults, and Harper should let Parliament debate the matter of decriminalizing prostitution, said Bedford, who has been a sex worker for 30 years, including as a street prostitute, as well as running three bawdy houses as a dominatrix, in Windsor, Thornhill and Toronto.

"Sex is legal in Canada. Women are having sex all over the place every day. And it's consensual. So it's a victimless crime. But the woman is sent to jail anyway. I did 15 months in jail. These bad laws perpetuate the victimization," Bedford said. "The judge's decision made it very clear these laws were very harmful to women."

Bedford said she is willing to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. "We're going to take this right down the line, right to the end. We're not going to give up. Never, never give up."

Rene Ross, the executive director of Stepping Stone in Halifax, a sex trade support and advocacy group, said that violence against prostitutes is a problem across the country.

"Countless attempted murders, a few murders, rapes, forcible confinement — we need to come together and realize sex workers are people and are entitled to have some safety just like everybody else."

Joanne, a former prostitute who refused to give her last name, said sex trade workers would be safer if anti-prostitution laws were thrown out.

"The women and men who now have to be in unsafe situations, such as jumping in cars before they are seen, sneaking into dark alleys to apply the trade, would have safer places to be," she said.

There are also seven interveners in the case, representing 19 groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Christian Legal Fellowship.

With files from CBC's Stephen Puddicombe and The Canadian Press