Friday, June 22, 2018

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Because we have been waiting for you for a decade

Legal Reform

A progressive approach to the sex trade

Accused serial killer Robert Pickton is awaiting trial for the murder of at least 15 of the 69 missing women from the Downtown Eastside. But aside from a slight increase in awareness, the conditions that allowed Pickton to so easily pick off vulnerable women have not changed, say some sex trade activists.
Despite this lack of progress, a number of Vancouver grassroots initiatives that want to reform prostitution laws and create safer work environments have begun to build up steam in the city and across the country. Perhaps the initiative with the biggest potential is the recently announced street-based sex worker steering committee. Sponsored by the Vancouver Agreement, the two-year, $200,000 committee will involve 16 members made up of sex workers, prostitution advocates, business improvements associations and the police with the goal of forming a comprehensive four-pillar strategy to tackle the city’s sex trade.
“This is the first time anything like this has been attempted before,” says Susan Davis, an active sex-trade worker and board member of Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education. “Nobody wants to just sweep it under the carpet. We want to try and provide a viable alternative and also try to clean up the neighbourhoods for the people that are affected by it.”
But as ambitious as the proposal is, it has also been met with skepticism since it was initiated by a coalition of business and police groups, which have traditionally not been very sympathetic to the women’s lives. While the committee does now include sex worker advocacy groups such as PACE, PEERS and WISH, some are concerned the committee might be more talk than action.
“There have been so many research projects over the years and while they’re piling up, collecting dust, women in the sex trade are piling up in the morgue and there’s something wrong with that,” says Jamie Lee Hamilton, co-founder of legal advocacy group Change the Code, who was once charged for running a brothel.
Hamilton also adds that the police have to work toward reconciliation with the Downtown Eastside workers if it can have any success. After Vancouver police blatantly ignored the Pickton murders, there is little trust from the women.
While the steering committee is not yet finalised, it plans to have 16 members. Six of those will go to the sex worker groups, with three for active sex trade workers. Davis, one of the committee’s members, says she has been surprised with how open minded the business representatives have been. Business groups say they are ready to take a progressive approach.
“I can understand why they don’t trust us,” says Patricia Barnes, executive director of the Hastings North Business Improvement Association. “But I think our being involved shows that we’re trying to have a different way of thinking these days and hopefully as the process goes along they’ll be able to see that things are changing.”
Although there are no accurate numbers, it is estimated there are anywhere from a few thousand to 5,000 street-based sex workers in Greater Vancouver—which makes up just ten to 15 percent of all sex trade workers. The impact from the scale of this industry crosses all social lines, yet so much of it remains hidden. Many worry that unless legal reform is on the steering committee’s agenda, it will not have any impact.
“The criminal code is having a significant contribution to the risk and harm that the women are facing on the street,” says Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies, who has been working with parliamentary subcommittees on sex trade legal reform and initially expressed concern when she had not been invited to participate in the committee. “At some point we need to have a thorough review.”
The tragic irony is that the selling of sex between consensual adults is actually legal in Canada. It’s just that the criminal code is used to control specific aspects of the work, specifically public negotiating, running a brothel and living off prostitution’s gains. This has meant that sex workers, and their families, are forced to live underground and in dangerous situations to perform something that most see as unstoppable.
But there is hope that Canada is ready to begin looking at legal reform. Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has said he is interested in changing the law. The Pivot Legal Society—which released a report entitled ‘Voices for Dignity: A Call to End the Harms Caused by Canada’s Sex Trade Laws’—is preparing to launch a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. While they still need to raise $100,000, it is hoped that a combination of political and legal pressure will force the government’s hand.
“I think a lot of people look at the millions of dollars being spent on the Pickton case and go, ‘right there the government is doing something about this.’ But that’s absolutely not true,” says Pivot lawyer Cristen Gleeson, who adds that there are still very little resources available to the sex workers. “As long as the criminal laws remain in place, it will be easy for it to happen again.”

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