4 min

New Vanier, Hintonburg councillors soften sex work stance

Gentler approach could be coming

City councillors representing areas known for prostitution say the protection of sex workers is paramount, though they differ on how that should happen and what it means.

Their statements come after being sworn in to replace more hard-line incumbents they beat in October’s municipal election.

They also come in the wake of a recent decision by an Ontario court to strike laws that criminalize most aspects of prostitution, although the laws remain on the books for now.

In Vanier, Councillor Mathieu Fleury says this issue has an important place on his agenda.

“In a downtown ward, it’s definitely a current issue,” he says, noting that he is more concerned with some of the things that can accompany prostitution, such as drug use or abuse by johns or pimps, than he is with the actual prostitution itself. He says he would support a model like Amsterdam’s, where prostitution is legal and monitored.

“I think it would be interesting, and it’s not because I am for or against prostitution. It’s to create that prevention mode. Because right now, prostitutes may be in danger, or they may be linked to a pimp or abuse, and that’s what we want to try and eliminate,” says Fleury.

“I think it’s a two-phase issue. There’s the issue of public perception around prostitution, and there’s how we deal with prostitution in our society in Ottawa, in Ontario. So are we creating a district, are we allowing it, are we creating some sort of entity around the job? Right now we don’t know who does it, and we don’t know their reasons. If it’s a choice to do the job, then that’s one thing. If you’re doing it to feed an addiction, then that’s another reason,” says Fleury.

“To me, no one wants to take a stand and ask if we’re going toward an Amsterdam model or something similar. I’m not sure I have the answer,” he says. “But where there’s a demand, there’s a product.”

That could put Fleury in conflict with some of his ward’s more reactionary community groups. For instance, Together for Vanier, a community group set up with the help of Crime Prevention Ottawa, encourages citizens to call police to report suspected street prostitution.

“Although it is not illegal to stand on the street, if you suspect a prostitute is working a street in your neighbourhood, you should still report it,” urges its website. “You will not get an immediate response, but it is important to get your concerns on record.”

A recent report suggests that Ottawa sex workers face harassment and abuse, often at the hands of police officials, both when they are working as well as in their private lives.

Elaine Leger of the Vanier Community Association, which started as a subgroup of Together for Vanier, says that sex workers have a right to protection and decent healthcare, and getting prostitutes off the streets is one way to accomplish this.

“They have a right to healthcare and a life, and we have to protect them. If they’re on the street they’re not protected. So, while they’re doing the business on Montreal road or wherever, they’re not protected. And so that is the main concern of the association. We recognize that the problem is there, and we try and help them as much as we can by providing them with services, and the city does as well,” says Leger.

In Kitchissippi Ward, home to the Hintonburg neighbourhood — which has a reputation for street prostitution — new city Councillor Katherine Hobbs says that this reputation is no longer founded, and that street prostitution is mostly a thing of the past.

“In Hintonburg, there really has not been street prostitution for a long time now, for probably about 15 years. So what we’re experiencing today would really be a one-off, so maybe one person operating out of a home or in the streets,” says Hobbs. She adds that while she doesn’t like to see sex trade workers marginalized, she does not outright support a decriminalization and regulatory approach to the profession, preferring instead to see what comes of court rulings in Ontario before she goes out on a limb.

All the same, she says, she does “not want to see women penalized for doing any activity like this.”

“I’m reluctant [to support an Amsterdam model] because of friends of mine who have died who have been involved in this profession; that’s what makes me reluctant. I would like to see people protected and moving in a different direction in life with the help of all the agencies that are there to do that,” says Hobbs.

Pat O’Brien of the Hintonburg Community Association agrees with Hobbs’ assessment that prostitution is mostly a thing of the past in the neighbourhood, and says that the lack of sex workers in the streets is a testament to the community’s will to fight against the perceived threat they brought.

“The community has completely turned the situation around,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien also thinks that the court’s decision to strike down laws surrounding prostitution may better protect sex workers, but that the community should be consulted as the courts decide how to proceed from here.

“We’re saying if [the laws] are struck down for the protection of the sex worker, and there are new rules for the city and the province and the federal government… If we are looking at protecting the communities, then the people within the communities should be consulted in the process.”

In September, Ontario Superior Court judge Susan Himel struck down three laws that criminalized most aspects of prostitution, though prostitution itself is not illegal. Laws against keeping a common bawdyhouse, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and living on the avails were struck, with the judge saying that those laws put sex trade workers in danger.

The federal and Ontario governments appealed the decision, and in early December, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge extended a stay of proceedings on the case, which means the current laws still stand at least until April 29, 2011.