The federal government has tabled its new prostitution legislation, which targets pimps, customers and others who “exploit” sex workers.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay tabled the bill -- C36: The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act -- Wednesday afternoon in the House of Commons.

The legislation comes after the Supreme Court struck down three main provisions in this country’s prostitution laws late last year because they created a dangerous environment for sex workers and impeded their ability to protect themselves. The court gave the government a year to re-write the legislation.

The new legislation targets “johns” and pimps, MacKay told reporters: “Those that treat sex services as a commodity.”

He said most Canadians view prostitution “as a dehumanizing phenomenon” that puts people at risk. He said the bill will “protect those who are most vulnerable by going after the perpetrators, the perverts, those who are consumers of this degrading practice.”

Under the bill:

  • the purchase of sexual services will now be a criminal offence, as will financially benefitting from the exploitation of others through prostitution.
  • the advertising of others’ sexual services either in print or online will be a criminal offence. Prostitutes can advertise their own sexual services, MacKay said.

Prostitutes themselves will not be charged “for any part they play” in the purchase, material benefit, procurement or advertising of sexual services, MacKay said.

However, it will be a crime to communicate for the purpose of selling sexual services in public spaces where a child could reasonably be expected to be present.

Emily Symons of POWER, an advocacy group for sex workers, said her organization is “absolutely outraged” and “heartbroken” by the newly introduced legislation.

She said studies have shown -- and the Supreme Court has agreed -- that criminalization of prostitution puts sex workers at increased risk of violence.

“Sex workers will die because of these laws,” she told CTV’s Power Play Wednesday.

Symons said that women working on the streets protect themselves in three key ways: by screening potential johns before jumping into their vehicles, by working in pairs or groups and staying within well-lit, populated areas so they can scream for help if something goes wrong.

Outlawing the sale of sex in public places will force sex workers to retreat to dark, isolated spaces and skip the screening process, which puts them in danger, Symons said.

Kate Shannon, a University of British Columbia researcher who has studied the impact of criminalization on the sex industry, also told Power Play that MacKay’s new bill is “alarming.”

She said criminalization will only put sex workers, especially those who are marginalized, at risk.

Money set aside for support systems

The prostitution bill also sets aside $20 million to fund support systems for sex workers who want to leave the trade.

“No model that involves full decriminalization or legalization will ever make prostitution a safe endeavour,” MacKay told an afternoon press conference. “There will always be an inherent danger in this degrading activity.”

Earlier Wednesday, MacKay said the new legislation comes after broad consultations with a variety of stakeholders.

“We think we have reached what will be the most constructive and the most compassionate approach that is aimed not only at protecting vulnerable people but the community as well,” MacKay told reporters on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning.

Last December, the Supreme Court declared that three provisions in Canada’s prostitution laws are unconstitutional: the prohibition on keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution.

There were a number of international models for dealing with prostitution that the government could look to as it drafted the new bill.

Decriminalization or legalization, the model followed in countries like the Netherlands, aims to reduce potential harms by regulating prostitution. The prohibition model, used in most U.S. states, bans the purchase and sale of all sexual services outright.

A third option, known as the “Nordic” model for its use in countries such as Sweden and Norway, is where clients and others are criminalized, but not prostitutes. This model also includes programming to assist sex workers.

MacKay said Wednesday morning the government’s approach would be “a Canadian model.”

Earlier this week, the federal Justice Department released its results from an online survey about prostitution that included more than 31,000 respondents. More than half of respondents said buying sex should be illegal, but two-thirds said selling sex should not be illegal.

MacKay said that the survey’s results were considered as the new legislation was drafted.

New Prostitution Legislation