Back in December 2014, the Conservatives reached the deadline to pass and enact laws criminalizing prostitution, in response to the Bedford case. The Bedford case is the Supreme Court of Canada case that held three anti-prostitution provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada are unconstitutional:
- The bawdy house law
- The communication law
- The living on the avail laws
Following this decision, the Conservative government went into panic aka planning mode. They held consultations, inviting only a few people that support people working in the sex trade in comparison to the number of religious groups, and fast-tracked parliamentary committees, stacking the panels with anti-prostitution campaigners who frequently pose as “pro-women’s rights” (when what they really mean is pro-white-cis-gendered women’s rights) advocates.
Before the shit show of Conservative circle-jerk circus, in 2010, Durham police in Oshawa conducted street sweeps in an effort to “clean up” the streets (which is telling as to the value placed on sex workers’ lives). The Durham police dubbed these efforts “Project Middleton” (but not after cute sweet Pippa or Kate Middleton). Project Middleton made national news when it arrested 34 sex workers, presumably all from the streets, and 78 “johns.”
The year before this project made national news, the Superior Court of Justice delivered its decision involving a victim who also happened to be a street-based sex worker living/working in Oshawa. The court described the victim as someone:
“[…]who has had an unfortunate life, to say the least. She lives on the streets, prostitutes herself to earn a living, which she quickly squanders on her drug addiction. She has had to take care of herself on the streets, living by her wits since she was a teenage. She has had numerous run-ins with the law and it was apparent during her evidence that she is not entirely trusting of the administration of justice. Given the circumstances of her life, it is understandable why she would be apprehensive about the likelihood of seeing justice done.”
As like in many sexual assault cases, the victim was sexually assaulted by someone she knew, and just like in even more sexual assault cases, the accused said the victim consented (duh!). Among other injuries and evidence, the victim suffered severe burns to her inner legs from cigarette burns. She did not seek medical help and did not report the attack, despite the evidence which supported the claim of a sexual assault. Then, in turn of its good ole heart, the court finds the accused guilty. Because, you know, the victim was “apprehensive about the likelihood of seeing justice done.”
Remember, the victim did not report the assault. The case shows the police arrested the victim for breach of recognizance and only discovered the injuries after the arrest. These facts, and this case, raises some difficult questions which we must reconcile if we are to truly acknowledge the safety, rights, well-being and livelihood of those who work in the sex trade, especially those who work on the street or who use drugs while working. For instance, how can we “protect” women, and others, who work in the sex trade, especially those who work in the streets or who use drugs while working, if their lives continue to be criminalized under the guise of “helping” them? How does criminalizing someone’s life and work help them find more “acceptable” forms of employment (*cough* not sex work *cough*)? More blatantly, how does criminalizing someone protect them? I mean, we can also look at the reasons why some women don’t report. Like, um helloooooo! “I might get arrested instead” and thus, these women don’t want to report any assault (which is my experience).
Since December 2014, we have seen an increase in a number of anti-prostitution initiatives by various policing agencies. And well, this was expected. The new laws enacted under the guise of protection are the same laws that Canada’s highest court stated violated sex workers’ right to life, liberty, and security of person. In these reports that allegedly talk about their care and concern for Aboriginal women, apparently Canada’s most vulnerable, we fail to see how these policing initiatives actually show any care and concern for these same group of persons.
For instance, in Nova Scotia and most recently, Cape Breton police states that Aboriginal women make up 90% of the trade in downtown Sydney. The police also stated that “99%” of these women were working the streets to “feed a drug addiction” and “twelve of the women are currently receiving treatment through Mental Health and Addictions Services.” Right. There is no disputing that the majority of women who do work on the streets may be Aboriginal or that they may be “feeding a drug addiction.” But is pushing them to the outskirts of the streets and potentially putting them at risk for more violence (as pointed out by the 25,000 pages of evidence in Bedford) really “helping” them? This is something the Cape Breton police chief admitted will happen after these initiatives. So, do the safety and lives of the most vulnerable really trump business interests? I guess in the eyes of those who supported the new anti-prostitution laws, they do.
If we truly cared for these people, the people who sell or trade sex, including selling and trading sex for drugs, why would we allow activities that put them at greater risk or harm continue to happen in our own communities? Are the lives that we consider to be most vulnerable to violence also the same lives that we are quick to disregard when it comes to very real and potential violence that they will experience? As we have recently seen from the RCMP reports on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, their lives and their choice to engage in selling or trading sex determine how the RCMP responds to their murders, their disappearances. The RCMP notes that Aboriginal women make up 4.3% of the entire population and the number of homicide victims who were also Aboriginal women selling/trading sex? 12%. The RCMP dismissed this number, in comparison to non-Aboriginal women (5%), as being insignificant. When it comes to the number of homicide victims who are also Aboriginal women and who use drugs, the numbers are even more alarming. The RCMP report states that 63% of homicide victims who are Aboriginal women also use drugs/substances prior to their death. If 99% of the women working on the street are using drugs and over 90% of these women are also Aboriginal, it would be a dangerous initiative to undertake and to admit to pushing these same women to the outskirts of town all in the name of “protection.” But, I mean, well, that’s the end game in this push for end demand: get rid of the prostitute, to get rid of prostitution.
 http://www.drps.ca/annual_report/2010/DRPS_final_2010.pdf; http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2010/04/24/oshawa_sex_ring_bust_sweeps_up_68yearold_prostitute.html; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-police-net-100-in-prostitution-sweep/article4316123/