Sex workers, former sex workers and allies began a new chapter in a very old story on Feb 17. They gathered at SAW Gallery for an information session, followed by a closed meeting for those in the trade to talk about what they need from the city.
As attendance swelled well past the 20 chairs that were set up, University of Ottawa criminology professor Christine Bruckert presented a short history of prostitution.
They call it the world’s oldest profession; in Ottawa, it’s at least 150.
“Even when it was Bytown, there was sex work in the Market area,” says Bruckert. “And they were able to exist in the city without too much hassle until the mid-1980s.”
Harassment became commonplace only as the Byward Market area began to gentrify, Bruckert says. As middle- and upper-class hipsters moved into the neighbourhoods, concern with the respectability of the area increased.
Road blockades were installed on the sidestreets near King Edward Ave to prevent johns from circling the stroll, police surveillance increased and residents began chasing sex workers away. Nearby, gay hustlers faced a similar problem; planners turned the patch of grass used as their stroll into the site of the American Embassy.
“What I’m really talking about is the ways in which the law makes them more vulnerable,” she says.
In part, that meant that hookers spread out — to the margins of the market, to Hintonburg, to Vanier — leaving them more isolated. Bruckert and her colleague Colette Parent prepared a study that asked 19 prostitutes in Ottawa and Gatineau about their experiences.
What they discovered turns assumptions about sex work on their head. The survey found that six of the 19 “faced violence from the police.”
“We had more complaints about police than we had about clients,” she says.
That situation in Ottawa appears to be getting worse. In the fall, Ottawa announced a newly minted Street Crime Unit, a project that started in Nov 2007 with a one-year mandate.
Just four days before the public meeting, Ottawa Police announced it had arrested 14 prostitutes.
The Feb 14 notice outlined street sweeps in the Centretown, Byward Market, Vanier and Hintonburg neighbourhoods resulting in 47 people being charged. Offences included drug and property crimes and prostitution.
In the wake of the sweeps, ACO distributed legal information, trying to reach those who have been charged.
“We urge everyone to be aware of their rights and to pass the information on to people who are directly affected,” says Adam Graham in a release Feb 14.
He points people to a small card produced by the Pivot Legal Society, available through the Pivot Legal Society website and at ACO, which details some of the things you can say if you are being harassed by the police. It offers a detachable portion which can be given to police officers which reads, in part:
“Officer, if I am under arrest or being detained, please tell me so. If I am free to go, please tell me so. If I am not free to go, please tell me why. I wish to exercise all my legal rights including my right to silence and my right to speak to a lawyer before I say anything to you. I do not consent to be searched. I wish to be released without delay. Please do not ask me questions, because I will not willingly talk to you until I speak to a lawyer. Thank you for respecting my rights.”
In December, the police announced 65 people were arrested in a street-level sweep — for charges including drug possession, drug trafficking, breach of conditions, robbery and communication for the purposes of prostitution — just one day before International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, when a public protest in Ottawa was planned.
So far, these police actions have gone largely unanswered. One of the cross-cutting motifs of the Bruckert-Parent report, which was released in May of 2006, is that prostitutes want an association to advocate for them.
“These women were well aware that there was no voice speaking on their behalf,” says Bruckert.
Stella is a Montreal-based organization run by and for sex workers. It’s funded mostly through the Public Health Agency of Canada. Jenn Clamen, from Stella, came to the Ottawa meeting to share the story of how Montreal sex workers organized.
“Street sex work is the most vulnerable to the law, and that’s why the urgency,” she says, but Stella has also been able to help escorts, phone-sex workers, rub-and-tug folks and women in the porn industry.
The organization, now more than a dozen years old, grew from a drop-in where women could shower and hang out to a full-on support service with a handful of fulltime staffers.
Out of respect for those who wanted to talk confidentially, reporters and allies were asked to leave. It could be a few months before a full-on organization in Ottawa is ready to mobilize.
For now, Ottawa has taken its first step. As dozens of allies spilled onto the street, a sheet of ice waited outside. But inside, a thaw was underway.