3 min

Not just in Calgary

Local bawdy house trial approaches

SEX WORKERS ARE NOT CRIMINALS. Jamie Lee Hamilton will go to court May 5 to challenge Canada's bawdy house laws. She was charged for operating a safe space for sex workers. Bawdy house laws are used against prostitutes and massage parlours, as well as against gay men engaged in consensual bathhouse sex. Credit: Xtra West files

Jamie Lee Hamilton is no stranger to bawdy house raids. More than two years before Calgary police raided Goliath’s bathhouse and charged 18 men last December, Vancouver police arrested Hamilton and charged her with keeping a common bawdy house here.

Hamilton, a high profile transsexual and sometime politician, says police raided her establishment, Grandma’s House, in August 2000, following a three-day undercover operation.

She’s been waiting for trial ever since.

“I think the Crown should offer a stay,” the sex worker says. A place like Grandma’s House, which provided food, condoms and safe rental rooms for sex workers, should not be illegal.

“Sex workers are not criminals,” Hamilton says. They’re self-employed contractors who deserve safe work environments-especially when there are serial killers on the loose. (Police arrested Hamilton more than a year before they arrested pig farmer Willy Pickton in connection with the missing women case.)

Though Hamilton is not opposed to leaving some protection in the Criminal Code for sex workers stuck in “parasitic” situations with exploitative pimps, she wants all other criminal references to prostitution removed.

Technically, it’s not a crime to work as a prostitute in Canada, but it is a crime to communicate for the purposes of prostitution.

It’s also a crime to make a living from other people’s work as a prostitute, including pimping or running a bordello-otherwise known as a bawdy house.

The whole notion of bawdy houses is out of step with community values, Hamilton says. People don’t care if there are bordellos or bathhouses anymore. But the law remains on the books-and that means police can still use it anytime, against anyone they might want to target.

That makes people dependent on the “whim” of whoever happens to be in charge of the vice squad in a particular police force, Hamilton says. Just look at what happened in Calgary-this time to a group of gay men having consensual sex with no exchange of money.

“It’s deplorable. Again, obviously, a high-ranking individual in vice has decided that he’s homophobic and that these places should be shut down.”

Hamilton has already asked a BC provincial court judge to dismiss the bawdy house charge against her because the law is too broad and should be stricken from the books.

But Judge Carlie Truman seems unlikely to grant Hamilton’s request. Though the judge has not yet issued a written response, she has indicated that she is not prepared to dismiss the charge and plans to start the trial in May.

The Crown, for its part, isn’t budging either. “Our intention is to proceed with the prosecution,” says spokesperson Geoffrey Gaul.

When asked if he, too, thinks the bawdy house laws should be stricken from the books, Gaul says that’s a question for a politician, not a prosecutor. “We’re given the law to prosecute,” he explains. It’s not the Crown’s place to question the law.

That means Hamilton’s last chance for a stay may lie with the federal justice committee’s recently announced sex trade review, initiated by queer Vancouver East MP Libby Davies.

Davies says she hopes the committee will recommend a whole new approach to the sex trade-one that is not dominated by law enforcement.

The Criminal Code is not helping anyone here, she says. It’s just criminalizing people who are already working in dangerous situations.

Davies points, for example, to the section of the Criminal Code that makes it illegal for sex workers to communicate with potential clients on the street. That means workers have to get into cars right away and the second they do, the risks increase.

Legalizing the sex trade may be the answer, Davies says, though she won’t commit to that course of action before the review is complete.

Her colleague, Burnaby-Douglas MP Svend Robinson, has no such qualms. He wants the committee to decriminalize street prostitution and bawdy houses as soon as possible. The bawdy house laws “have no place on the law books of Canada,” Robinson told the House of Commons on Feb 7. They are “archaic, outdated and too often open to serious abuse.”

Hamilton isn’t holding her breath. “Our elected representatives [are] often too spineless” to really take on issues like the sex trade, she says.

But that doesn’t mean she’s planning to stop pushing for a safer, legal sex trade anytime soon.

Hamilton recently opened a new venue in the industrial Eastside. It’s a safe meeting space for all kinds of “alternative communities,” she says with a purposefully evasive laugh.

Hamilton’s trial is scheduled to begin May 5 in BC provincial court. If convicted of keeping a common bawdy house, she could face up to two years in prison.