5 min

Making the case for reform

In June, Karin Galldin will help Ottawa sex workers group intervene in landmark case

Credit: Ben Welland

She is a cross between an urban cyclist and a biker femme — arriving at our interview wearing tight jeans, a loose top, long earrings and Blundstone boots. Inside the restaurant, the biker chick image disappears when we sit down. She looks at me, sizes up the situation and starts to talk.

Karin Galldin, a 30-something lawyer, founded her own feminist practice, Galldin Law, in 2007. At the University of Ottawa’s law school, Galldin was involved with the Exotic Dancers’ Rights Association — her introduction to the sex work industry. “That cemented my belief that this was a really underrepresented group of workers,” she says.

After finishing her law degree, Galldin worked in firms in Toronto and Ottawa before deciding she needed to work in an environment fuelled by her own beliefs, values and desire to connect with her community. “Part of my day-to-day life is reconciling what these professional expectations are and what my own expectations are for myself — as a feminist-identified, queer woman, who might want different values in life when interacting with clients or advocating for them,” she says.

Since setting up her firm, Galldin has learned how to run a small business while building her reputation. The learning curve has been steep and the knocks hard, but over the years Galldin’s name has become synonymous with cases that few firms know how to — or want to — handle. “I am not litigating for corporate interests here. I am litigating for people who live near the poverty line, and a lot of the time I am litigating for public services to be made better. I am litigating for workplaces to be more supportive,” she says.

Galldin is conscientious in connecting with her clients. She takes time to build up trust and establish a healthy client relationship. “I think part of my role is validating what my clients experience, because they are already operating in a system that is going to be invalidating for the most part,” she says. “I manage people’s conflicts for a living. I manage disputes and I carry people’s emotions for them, so I think that has to be a respectful process.”

Most of Galldin’s clients share similar characteristics. Some live close to the poverty line, others have experienced trauma in their lives, and many have been let down by institutions designed to protect them. All, Galldin says, are fighters. “They are all women who are interested in challenging power in their own ways, and that can be minute, like a housing issue or it can be a bigger issue like suing a government ministry,” she says. “They are all interested in working with me because there is something that they perceive as being unjust, and they want to see what they can do about it.”

Galldin emphasizes that it takes courage for a woman to name her experiences and that the law often looks at those experiences in a different way — past experiences can be used to diminish credibility; even an emotion can be used negatively. As Galldin puts it, “It’s a real gamble to put yourself in that arena.”

In October 2010, Leslie Robertson joined Galldin Law. Like Galldin, Robertson’s interests lie in social justice and human rights, with a focus on criminalized women and non-traditional family law. They balance each other in their work, and the dynamics between them make for a good working partnership. “We have complementary services — she is very community orientated; she comes out of a social work background,” Galldin says, adding that Robertson “also kicks my ass once in a while.”

And now, Galldin and Robertson have joined forces with POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau, Work, Educate and Resist) on two of that organization’s more pressing legal files.

In the fall of 2010, POWER members Christine Bruckert and -Frédérique Chabot approached Galldin Law. They had just published a report, Challenges: Ottawa Area Sex Workers Speak Out, and were seeking legal advice. Robertson had already been involved, having been an interviewer during the compilation of the report.

“That is the type of partnership that I am so happy to have in my work — a really engaged and active client and very interested in moving forward,” says Galldin of POWER. “The contents of the report are horrific and in some extent discounted by conventional media for being anonymous narratives.”

The meeting with POWER was the catalyst for Galldin Law to write to the Ontario Human Rights Commission asking for a public inquiry into police misconduct. On March 3, Galldin met with the commission and members of POWER.

A second project promises to thrust POWER and Galldin’s firm into a story of national scope that will push the boundaries of federal law.

In September 2010, in the Ontario Court of Appeal, Justice Susan Himel struck down three laws that affect sex workers: keeping a common bawdyhouse, communicating for the purposes of prostitution and living on the avails of prostitution. Himel’s decision has yet to be implemented, pending an appeal process that’s likely to end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.

The folks at POWER wanted to intervene in the case — to assist the court in coming to a decision — but were not sure what that entailed. Both Galldin and Robertson were interested in working with POWER on the intervenor application, but, as Galldin puts it, “We’re very young lawyers ourselves, and we don’t have the skill set to navigate appellate intervenor applications.”

Galldin contacted Cynthia Peterson and Charlene Wiseman, her formers employers at Sack Goldblatt Mitchell in Toronto, asking them to be co-counsels on the case.

POWER was one of many social justice groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and Maggies: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, to apply for intervenor status.

At a factum hearing in March at the Ontario Court of Appeal, POWER argued that sex work is inherently valuable work. “One of the things we would like to do with POWER is to be able to say that this is important work, and that it should be valued just like other forms of work are in our culture,” says Galldin. “We don’t want to eclipse the complexities of the sex work industry, but we don’t think that you need to erase all of sex workers’ stories by saying that they are engaging in risky or degrading work — because that’s not what we are seeing, and those are not the words our clients are using to describe their work.”

POWER was one of the few organizations accepted as intervenors. The case will go before the Ontario Court of Appeals on June 13. There are about 28,000 pages of evidence for the courts to get through, and the hearing will last four days. The majority of court time will go to Allan Young, the lawyer arguing on behalf of Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, and their opponents from the federal government. Intervenors will have just 20 minutes each to make their case.

In the meantime, Galldin and Robertson will wait to hear from the Ontario Human Rights Commission while preparing POWER’s argument with their co-counsels. The case is galvanizing for Galldin and is the culmination of her work with women fighting the establishment.

“I think I have become more political, more polarized. You can’t help it if the majority of the phone calls you take at work are women sharing some really intimate details of their lives and talking to you about their partners abusing them or being abused  by police or abused by people in authority,” she says.