#MMIW: A critique of Sherene Razack’s piece exploring the trial of Pamela George’s murder

This post is a critique of Razack’s piece, “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George”, who was an Indigenous woman and worked on the streets as a prostitute (this is the term employed by Razack in her article). I will outline Razack’s assumptions and how they do not set out Razack’s intentions: exploring the trial of a murder of an Indigenous woman who worked on the streets as a prostitute to introduce the idea of colonial violence within spatialized justice. Spatialized justice is defined as “violence against marginalized people in places like the Downtown Eastside are treated differently than those who live elsewhere and who are engaged in different work.”[1] While her work provides a useful framework for discussing violence, the issue with this piece is the very thing that is has become useful for: discussion of violence against Indigenous women in colonized spaces.

Razack begins, “why write about this trial as spatialized justice and gendered racial or colonial violence?” (p. 125). Her answer to this question is to call attention to “a number of factors contributed to masking the violence of the two accused and thus, diminishing their legal culpability and responsibility for the death of Pamela George” (p. 125). Briefly, some of these factors include the erasure of colonial violence and treating prostitution as a contract which is both violence and negates violence. She asserts that Pamela George existed in spaces of prostitution and Aboriginality where “violence routinely occurs” (p. 125) (as if this violence is natural to prostitution and Aboriginality). She also maintains that this not an argument about generic patriarchal violence against women (as if patriarchal violence has ever been generic); rather, her piece is an argument about race, space and the law (p. 126). Overall, Razack plans to contests the reasoning that “women working as prostitutes are considered by law to have consented to whatever violence is visited upon them” (p. 126).[2]

Razack acknowledge the histories, where white men were/are historically the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women within the context of domination and control, as what brings the encounters between Pamela and her two attackers together (p. 126). Razack submits that it is also history what is missing from the trial (p. 126). While it is very true that it is history, including Pamela’s history that is missing from this trial, I would argue that it is George’s indigeneity that is missing from the trial. I find this more of an issue with case law as a whole, regardless of whether the case is criminal or another area of law or whether the victim is Indigenous or the offender is Indigenous. This can be seen in the case of R v Briscoe, where the victim was a young Indigenous girl, and Winnipeg Child and Family Services v. G(DF) where G is an Indigenous mother. In the former, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) does not mention the victim’s indigeneity and in the latter, G’s indigeneity was acknowledged but the history of colonialism was not. Though the issue is that history is missing, this is part of a much larger problem as the issue exists within how law is formed and shaped. When case law carefully extracts certain facts as more relevant than others, it determines some facts as unimportant and these irrelevant facts tend to point to colonialism and indigeneity. So I will agree that this history is erased. But it is also important to acknowledge that this is a larger problem of the legal system as how law is both shaped and formed through case law.

Razack also recognizes the over-policing and over-incarceration in the lives of Indigenous peoples which play out through prostitution, policing and the criminal justice system (p. 127). Indigenous women who both live and work on the street report higher incidents of police violence and harassment.[3] If she accepts that Indigenous peoples are over-policed and over-incarceration, then she must acknowledge that it is the criminalization of prostitution that creates the space for over-policing and over-incarceration of Indigenous women, especially Indigenous women who work outdoors, like Pamela George. Through this criminalization, these same women are then forced to work in isolated areas such as the field where Pamela was murdered, away from protection and safety. She agrees and affirms this reality that Pamela was forced to an isolated field where she was later murdered and that other Indigenous women were also driven to secluded areas for the purpose of murder (p. 142; 134; 135). But she does not recognize that it is this forced isolation and displacement that contributes to the violence anywhere in her piece. In fact, Razack ignores the reality that it is being displaced to isolated places like the field where Pamela was murdered that creates the environment for violence to occur. In her efforts to historicize Pamela’s circumstances and tragic outcome, Razack fails on all counts. She focuses solely on the acts that occurred in the field and not the space that it occurred in (p. 142-144). She also fails to identify the isolated fields where she was murdered as an outcome of the criminalization of prostitution, though she acknowledges prostitution as a site of over-policing but not under-protection.

The “innate” violence in prostitution that Razack attempts to position as the real violence in prostitution also negates the personhood of women like Pamela. Razack refers to these women as simply passive bodies waiting to be penetrated, dominated and violated (p. 136-137). In other words, they are merely objects. In critiquing the objectification done by the Indian Agents and the NWMP (RCMP’s predecessor), she disparages Pamela by reducing her to a body existing in space. For Razack, women in prostitution exist in spaces of prostitution as nothing more than bodies (p. 136). She continues with the reasoning that we, the reader, exist within histories of domination and subordination for which we are accountable (p. 128). But how is Razack being held accountable for her continued subordination of Indigenous women as passive bodies, or more appropriately, objects occupying colonial spaces? In an attempt to position Pamela as existing within a space of prostitution and Aboriginality, which we must remember Razack asserts as a space of routine violence, she positions Pamela as a body existing within these spaces. When she argues that the space of prostitution is where men use women in these spaces or purchase access to their bodies (p. 136), she argues that this is a violation of their personhood. Yet, she re-affirms this violation by reducing all women in prostitution to passive bodies.

It is hard to follow Razack’s logic when she focuses on prostitution as innately violent and concedes that Indigenous peoples interactions with white settlers is situated within prostitution, policing, and the criminal justice system. She also admits that this over-incarceration and policing strategies is an indicator of the ongoing colonialization of Indigenous populations (p. 133). If this is what she submits, then she must also admit, as noted earlier, that the criminalization of prostitution as a result of the criminal justice system and policing initiatives and responses to prostitution ultimately contributes to the violence that she suggests is “innate” to prostitution. She contradicts herself by admitting that violence exists between Indigenous peoples and white settlers in the context of prostitution but ignores the on-going criminalization of prostitution through the criminal justice system, its legal regimes and policing agencies.

Further, in her discussion of spatial configurations of colonial societies through boundaries and through laws, she explicitly lists nuisance laws as a mark of spaces of settler and the native. She ignores the fact that, at the time, Canada’s anti-prostitution laws policing outdoor workers were largely enacted to prevent nuisance (p. 129). At the moment, this has recently changed. Regrettably, the Canadian government enacted similar anti-prostitution laws, including a specific law that will police outdoor workers in the same manner that forced them to work in isolated places, like Pamela George, as the previously struck down laws. Additionally, this “new” communication law is enacted with the intention to help stop the impediment of traffic, as opposed to preventing nuisance. I guess the movement of traffic is more important than the lives of sex workers.[4]

Throughout the entire article, her discussion of violence is most troubling. She ignores the police violence when talking about Indigenous women in prostitution. She admits repeatedly that the violence in prostitution is natural ignoring the fact that it is through the criminalization of prostitution that this violence manifests itself. When she describes the incident of policing using dogs to force an Indigenous woman accused of prostitution out of her house, she does not name this as violence (p. 134). More explicitly, police using dogs to remove Indigenous women from their homes is just “natural.” She does not even acknowledge that being forced to work in isolated places away from protection creates the environment for violence to take place. In fact, she erases this reality of under-protection, displacement to isolated places and police violence altogether. Why does she not name this violence as police violence or more appropriately, colonial violence? She commits the offence she intends to call attention to by erasing this history and colonial violence; she talks about this violence as cleansing but her erasure of colonialism and history of police violence is cleansing of colonialism (p.143).

Another fallacy presents itself when she does not in fact contest the idea that women in prostitution call the violence into their lives. This is evident when she recognizes the fact that the field Pamela is murdered is isolated but ignores the fact that the criminalization of prostitution forces these women to work in isolated places. Even in her critique of prostitution where the law that treats prostitution as a contract, she reduces the violence that these women experience as existing only between individuals and not as a result of larger structures that govern and regulate their lives. She ignores how the criminal regulation of prostitution creates these spatial configurations in colonial societies. In an attempt to espouse the liberal idea of free, autonomous individuals she also reduces this violence as existing between individuals which erases colonial violence. (p.143). In her discussion of the trial, she states that the court viewed Pamela as a “rightful target” or a “by product” by arguing that this violence is naturalized when prostitution is reduced to a contract where the contract negates the violence that women in prostitution experience (p. 144). In the same breathe, however, she argues that when the law treats prostitution as a contract, this is violence itself (p. 144). How can something simultaneously be violence and negate violence?

Further, she does not distinguish between the treatment of prostitution as contract which is violence and prostitution as violence itself. Razack attempts to argue when the law treats prostitution as a contract it assumes the violence as something that happens in prostitution (p. 159). Something she also concedes in her argument that prostitution is innately violent (p. 152). If Razack admits that treating prostitution as a contract both is violence and negates violence, then calling prostitution innately violent works in a similar fashion. In other words, calling prostitution as innately violent is both violence and negates violence. This is demonstrated in Razack’s negation of police violence or more suitably, colonial violence. On top of this, she argues that this treatment of prostitution as a contract erases Pamela’s personhood (p. 127).

Razack intends that ” a spatial analysis reveals is that bodies in degenerate space lose their entitlement to personhood through a complex process in which that is enacted is naturalized” (p. 155). This the very same loss of personhood that Razack maintains when women engaging in prostitution are merely bodies existing in space waiting to be violated as if they cannot say yes or no and if one says yes, they never actually said yes. She attempts to argue that accepting prostitution as a contract naturalizes the violence in prostitution but she also commits this same offence by postulating that prostitution is innately violent. Razack’s ultimate goal, if not anything, was to introduce Pamela’s murder and the unlikelihood of the court and Canadian’s society treating her as a person (p. 156). Why then does Razack reduce women like Pamela to passive bodies, objects, waiting to penetrated and violated? Relegating Indigenous women, like Pamela George, to bodies waiting to be violated is colonial violence in itself.

Through this re-reading of Razack’s article, I want to call attention to her failure to contest the idea that women in prostitution deserve the violence that they experience. She does very little to address this notion. Arguably, she re-affirms these notions that women deserve the violence that they experienced by calling the violence in prostitution innate. It is often these same statements that prostitution is innately violent which inform societal and legal reactions to prostitution and prostitutes. This can be seen with the most recent enactment of Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, where supporters of the law called prostitution innately violent and the government accepted this understanding of prostitution as normal, proceeding to enact the same violent laws that contributed to the isolation and alienation of the most marginalized women in prostitution—women like Pamela George. We also seen from this recent passing of this new law that the government’s goal was not to protect prostitutes[5] and throughout the entire Bedford constitutional challenge of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, where the AG argued that prostitution is innately violent and because of this innate violence, women who engage in prostitution assume the associated risks.[6] More fitting, the women deserve the violence that they experience because who in their right mind would consent to a violent activity.

Razack then presents the following question: did Pamela George get what she deserved as an Aboriginal woman prostitute? (p. 151) From Razack’s assumptions about prostitution and Aboriginality, that they are spaces of routine violence, and her failure to contest the notion that women working as prostitutes are considered by law to have consented to whatever violence is visited upon them, Pamela George, and other women like George, accepted the violence that they experienced by engaging in prostitution. It is these same ideas that prostitution is innately violent that inform the very same legal response to prostitution: that women consented to the violence that they experienced. Razack argues that treating prostitution as a contract removes individuals from relations of domination, when colonialism is also a system of domination (p. 143). She is guilty of removing individuals from relations or systems of domination by reducing this violence as existing between individuals, not questioning how larger structures that govern and regulate prostitution as a criminal behavior. This is demonstrated when she admits that Indigenous women are 131 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous women (p. 134). Yet she fails to question the criminalization of prostitution as creating a relation of domination within the larger system of domination, colonialism.

Razack presents a concluding question: what would it mean to deliberately introduce history and social context into trial? (p. 156) I propose to ask more correctly: what would it mean to introduce the history that Razack blatantly and explicitly left out, like the fact that the first bawdyhouse law and subsequent anti-prostitution laws were enacted under the Indian Act?[7] How are Razack’s assumptions about prostitution contributing to colonial violence against Indigenous women? In talking about a historical contextualization, we have to be honest in how academics like Razack are touted as compelling and persuasive and how their assertions remain unquestioned and removed from critique and critical evaluation.

When we return to her original question: “why write about this trial as spatialized justice and gendered racial or colonial violence?” (p. 125) If Razack actually addressed colonial violence and the history of colonialism, like the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws and the policing of Indigenous persons, as creating the environments for violence that she assumes is routine to the space of Aboriginality and prostitution, then a more appropriate framework for discussing violence against Indigenous women may have been produced. Instead what is (re)produced is colonial assumptions about Indigenous women as passive bodies waiting to be violated. In closing, I propose that people question how this piece and others like it, which call prostitution as innately violent, is colonial violence in itself and begin to question how the criminal regulation of Indigenous women’s sexualities and bodies perpetuates the ongoing colonial violence in their lives. It is about time that this piece stops being recycled as a persuasive and compelling for discussing violence in the lives of Indigenous women and girls, especially those who engage in prostitution, when reducing Indigenous women to passive bodies, or objects, waiting to be violated is violence in itself.

[1] http://www.pivotlegal.org/pivot-points/blog/calling-out-spatialized-justice While this source refers to a specific area like the DTES, spatialized justice can also be applied to other areas like the slum in Regina, where Pamela’s attackers found her and where they often were after they drank alcohol (as noted in Razack’s article).

[2] This is also the same argument that informed the AG’s arguments in Bedford (that women in prostitution accept the risk of violence because prostitution is inherently violent) which is also the same line of reasoning that informs the response to Bedford, The Protection of Community and Exploited Persons Act.

[3] https://kwetoday.com/2013/12/28/canadas-anti-prostitution-laws-a-method-for-social-control/

[4] http://www.pivotlegal.org/the_new_sex_work_legislation_explained

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q18rMJ01YKw

[6] https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/13389/index.do @ para 73

[7] https://kwetoday.com/2013/12/28/canadas-anti-prostitution-laws-a-method-for-social-control/ To her defence, she does mention the criminal regulation of Indigenous women’s sexualities and bodies although only in a footnoot at the end of her chapter. But not much is mentioned in the substance of her argument


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