In an apparent change of tactics, Ottawa Police raided the premises of a massage parlour on Holland Ave May 29.
Since November 2007, Ottawa Police have been carrying out monthly sweeps of street-level sex workers. Undercover officers pose as either johns or hookers and work in so-called lure-and-catch teams. Last week’s raid is different, in that it doesn’t target street sex workers.
Three people were arrested. Two women were charged with prostitution-related offences and a man went through pre-trial diversion and will attend john school.
Local police and members of the RCMP executed a search warrant at the premises following an investigation that began several months ago. Police say they were following two leads: a classified ad placed in a local newspaper and a citizen complaint.
Canada’s bawdy house law, section 213, introduced in 1985, has been used by the Police a number of times in the past year, says Dave Veinotte of the Ottawa Police Service.
“Bawdy house complaints are, in general, frequently investigated by police across the country,” says Veinotte, adding that not all investigations lead to criminal prosecutions.
In this case, however, the two women were charged with offences against the common bawdy house law, Canada’s anti-bordello provision.
The raid took place in Hintonburg, a gentrifying area whose residents have a history of campaigning about sex work in the neighbourhood.
In 2001 the Hintonburg Community Association published a document under the title of Street-Level Prostitution: Dispelling the Myths, which called for and end to street-level sex work.
The association wrote that, with street-level prostitution came “the harassment of ordinary women on the street, the recruitment of neighbourhood children to run drugs, the crack house next door, all these harms follow street prostitution into a community.”
The head of the Hintonburg Community Association, Jeff Leiper, says that the Holland Ave massage parlour was on his radar, but he and his organization weren’t the source of the complaint that sparked this investigation.
“[The Association doesn’t] address prostitution, only the harmful effects of street-level prostitution,” says Leiper.
Ariel Troster, a Hintonburg resident and sex worker ally, says that the raid was a waste of public resources and does nothing to help the community.
“[Sex workers] should have the right to do their work like anybody else,” says Troster.
“If it is a pattern developing, I think it is something we need to resist.”
Troster worries that raids leave sex workers in greater danger instead of allowing them to continue conducting business in a manner that keeps them safe.
Her concern is that raids perpetuate a cycle of criminalization that prevents sex workers from going to the police when they experience physical or sexual assault. And, she says, the bawdy house law stems from same oppressive thinking that hinders freedom of sexual expression in queer communities.
However, Peter Bochove, of Spa Xcess in Toronto, says that, while sex workers and bathhouse found-ins are both charged under the bawdy house law, different subsections of the law apply.
No one has been charged in connection with bathhouse activity since 2004. A 2005 Supreme Court of Canada decision, R v Kouri, may have legalized consensual bathhouse activity, but it was not explicitly laid out in the court’s decision.
In Canada, prostitution is legal but sex workers can’t negotiate with clients, hire a bodyguard or work from their home, for fear of breaking prostitution-related laws. Those laws include:
* communication for the purposes of prostitution, s 213(1)(c);
* living on the avails of prostitution, s 212(1)(j); and
* keeping a common bawdy house, s 210.
“It’s an idiotic law,” says Bochove. “You can be a prostitute as long as you don’t practice.”
Activists are campaigning for an end to Canada’s prostitution-related laws. In Toronto, Sex Professionals of Canada is undertaking a constitutional challenge of those three sections of the Criminal Code.