The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Dear Minister Wilson-Raybould
As an Indigenous woman who is currently studying law, you are truly an inspiration. There are literally no words to describe the overwhelming feelings I have experienced over the last couple of days. But “law student” is only one of the many hats that I wear. I am also a sex work activist, who advocates for the decriminalization of sex work. I support decriminalization because, as an Indigenous woman with sex working experience across Canada including northern regions, I know the harms of criminalization.
When I read the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named you as our new Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, I tried to hold back the tears in class. After class ended, I immediately went home. I placed some sage in my smudge bowl and I said some prayers. As I sat on my bed, crying, doing ceremony, I realized that I cried many tears this same time last year—except these were not tears of joy.
A lot can change in a day. A month…many months. A lot can change in a year.
On November 4, 2014, the previous Conservative government’s bill responding to the Supreme Court of Canada’s Bedford decision passed its third reading in the Senate. Two days later, the bill received royal assent on November 6, 2014. This bill is commonly referred to as C-36, or by its short-title, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.
The Bedford decision was a historic one. It was a historic decision because for many years, sex workers, both current and former, fought to have their voices heard in the courts and in the legislative process. However, C-36 was a step back in the struggles and challenges sex workers have overcome over the course of many years to have their voices heard. During the legislative process, I was the only Indigenous woman who had sex working experience, who sat on one of the JUST panels, and who publicly supported the decriminalization of sex work. Many of the decisions that led up to the Bedford decision also included the voices and experiences of persons who live and work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the site of the tragic and unfortunate history of many Indigenous women who lived/worked on the streets in DTES.
When the previous CPC government introduced C-36, there was a complete disregard for the evidence. Ipsos Reid conducted national focus groups and produced a report, dated April 2, 2014. This report stated that participants did not see prostitution, along with marijuana, as top issues concerning crime and justice issues in Canada. Yet, a year later, here we are talking about sex work. The reason sex work even entered the public discourse is due to the hard work and advocacy efforts done by sex workers’ rights groups and allies over many, many, many years.
During the focus groups, the Ipsos Reid report states the topic of prostitution was introduced to the participants. In that introduction, the report outlined the options that the government was given by the SCC in Bedford. The report states the three options could be “do nothing,” “criminalize clients and pimps,” or “criminalize prostitution.” In the “criminalize clients and pimps” option, the report outlines the Nordic Model. The report says that the Nordic Model “criminalize[s] clients and pimps and decriminalize[s] prostitutes.” Under the Nordic Model, prostitutes are not decriminalized, as similarly stated by others who supported C-36. Some of the recent law enforcement efforts both before and after C-36 include having police officers pose as clients, which puts women directly in harms way.
Over the last year, some women have been deported in Canada as a result of these efforts. On the east coast, one police chief admitted to pushing clients of the most marginalized women, Indigenous women who work on the streets, off the main streets as “helping” them. Further, the Calgary police admits to seeing less street-based sex workers following their initiatives to target clients. However, seeing less street-based sex workers on the street does not mean that these sex workers are more safe. These two policing initiatives show the harms with targeting clients: it means pushing sex workers off the streets and into the dark corners and allies, into the potential sites of increased violence. Still, these efforts, including the Nordic Model, ignores Bedford‘s evidentiary record consisting of 25,000 pages in 88 volumes which shows the harms of criminalization of prostitution.
In the coming months, I have hope that you will be open to discussing the realities and concerns of sex workers, including the harms created by criminalization. Criminalizing prostitution has never protected Indigenous women and girls from violence. Even the Supreme Court acknowledges the state’s role in making a prostitute more vulnerable to violence especially when Chief Justice wrote, “The violence of a john does not diminish the role of the state in making a prostitute more vulnerable to that violence” (para 87). Recently, Amnesty International decided to support sex workers’ rights, including the decriminalization of sex work. It’s time we start considering other options, like the decriminalization of sex work, in Canada and show our leadership in protecting the rights of the vulnerable and marginalized. More importantly, however, I am hoping that you will not ignore the history of sex worker-led initiatives to have their voices heard in decisions that concern their safety, their well-being, and their own lives. Sex workers are the real experts and if we are going to engage in a legislative process that will directly affect their lives, then their lived experiences and realities should be at the center of the discussions.
 I use the term “prostitution” and sex work interchangeably; I use prostitution only when referring to documents that use the same term. However, it should be highlighted that “prostitution” is also a term still used by legislation. Sex work is the more appropriate term and I use it where possible.