The Supreme Court of Canada started the clock ticking Friday for Parliament to reshape social policy dealing with the world's oldest profession.
In a unanimous 9-0 ruling on Friday, the high court struck down the country's prostitution laws, giving Parliament a year to produce new legislation. That means prostitution-related offences will remain in the Criminal Code for one more year.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government was "concerned" by the ruling, and is "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."
The high court struck down all three prostitution-related prohibitions — against keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution and street soliciting — as violations of the constitutional guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person.
The ruling comes more than two decades after the court last upheld the anti-prostitution laws. It represents a historic victory for sex workers — mainly women — who were seeking safer working conditions.
Bob Hughes of ASK Wellness hopes the federal government will take the opportunity to engage municipalities, including Kamloops, in a dialogue to come up with alternative legislation.
"We've been given a year to come up with an entirely new approach to prostitution," he said. "It is a significant challenge for the federal government: How do we replace an archaic approach to prostitution?"
While other countries have taken more liberal approaches, there has to be a legal framework that reflects Canadian values. There is no obvious route to go, but the guiding objective should be to protect the safety of women, Hughes said.
He considers it a major achievement for Kamloops to no longer have a sex-trade stroll, but that feat hasn't reduced prostitution. There are 14 escort businesses listed in the city.
"Prostitution is alive and well in the community, but it is literally just below the surface. This unravels the federal law and brings it into public discourse."
Advocates for sex workers asked for a seat at the table in the coming year as the government crafts a response. But they and their advocates were skeptical that the Harper Conservatives, known for their tough-on-crime agenda, would be receptive.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has the ear of the government, proposing to criminalize pimps and johns, but not prostitutes. That makes the church group an unlikely ally of the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, which backs this so-called "Nordic model" that has found favour in Sweden, Norway and Iceland.
That pairs those two groups against the sex workers who won Friday's case and who are calling for all-out decriminalization.
"Our fate should not be decided by the church. We are a secular nation," said former prostitute Valerie Scott of Toronto, one of three principals in the case, along with retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and Vancouver sex worker Amy Lebovitch.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing on behalf of the court, noted that Canada's social landscape has changed since the last time the high court considered this issue in 1990.
The decision upheld last year's Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that said the law banning brothels exposed sex workers to added danger by forcing them onto the streets.