The Pivot Legal Society, a Vancouver advocacy and legal activist group, released a research study, Jun 13, to explore how sex workers say they should be treated by city, provincial and federal governments, and to assess the legal and human rights implications if Canada’s archaic solicitation laws are finally repealed.
Feelings ran high at Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus for the study’s unveiling, as sex workers testified to the often lethal, and always demeaning, conditions imposed by Canada’s current legal regime around prostitution. Canada’s laws governing adult prostitution have been widely criticized for placing street-level sex workers at lethal risk and unnecessarily criminalizing adults who freely choose to trade their sexual services for cash.
“Sex trade workers are entitled to the same human rights standards that are afforded to other members of Canadian society,” reads the Pivot report. It bases its recommendations on interviews with sex workers in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and calls for changes at each level of government.
Reforms suggested in the report include exemption from city licensing for individual street-level workers and independent escorts, a repeal of city bylaws that impose prohibitive licensing fees on sex-related businesses, and city zoning that keeps sex work separate from schools and playgrounds while allowing sex workers to work from their homes.
At other levels of government, the report calls for guarantees that no one will be denied welfare or employment insurance coverage because they are unwilling work in prostitution, more proactive enforcement of criminal assault laws by police and Crown prosecutors to help protect sex workers from violent attacks, special immigration status for non-Canadians who are pressed into sex work involuntarily, and stringent privacy protections for sex workers in all their contacts with government bodies.
Researchers also report considerable, but not universal, enthusiasm among sex workers for the idea of unionization. Some expressed a preference to work as independent entrepreneurs, so the study calls for a number of business and company structures to be available as options for sex workers after decriminalization.
Pivot president Katrina Pacey emphasized the study only addresses issues of adult sex trade workers, and does not address the different and complex issues raised by child prostitution.
At the study’s unveiling, John Lowman one of the lead researchers, angrily criticized Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan for his apparent unwillingness to meet with spokespeople from Pivot and for failing to respond to the contents of the report.
“Sam, where are you?” cried Lowman.
According to Pivot, the report was sent to City Hall at the beginning of May with a request for a face-to-face meeting between the mayor and Pivot researchers, but nothing came of it.
Sullivan told Xtra West in a Jun 15 phone interview that although he is “very impressed with Pivot,” he would not meet with them until the group’s complaints against Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham, and a legal action involving Pivot against the police complaints commissioner, have been dealt with.
“I have been advised by a lawyer that the outstanding complaints could complicate any meeting on other matters,” Sullivan said, “but I’ll be happy to meet with them once the complaints are resolved.”
Pivot president Katrina Pacey was surprised and disappointed to hear about the mayor’s decision.
“The only thing we were told by his staff was that he was too busy to meet with us,” she says. “I respect the mayor’s decision, but there is an alternative. Surely it is possible to maintain a separation between these issues. Our study speaks to law and policy reform. Our letter offered to play a supportive, advisory role in the city developing policy.
“Our approach is not confrontational here,” she continues. “It could take years for the issues the mayor names to be resolved. We shouldn’t have to wait those years for him and his colleagues to have an opportunity to learn from this important new research.”
The report’s release is timely. Parliament announced Jun 6 that it will reconstitute the Subcommittee on Solicitation (see brief page seven). The subcommittee was struck to examine and make recommendations to Parliament for modernizing Canada’s sex laws, but two previous incarnations were dissolved before they could finish their work because of election calls.
Advocates for sex trade workers are hopeful the new subcommittee will have time to report to Parliament before the next election and that they will recommend the Canadian Criminal Code sections that criminalize adult sex trade workers be repealed.
Activists say any progress on the laws governing sex work in Canada will require considerable public education and political pressure. Politicians will need to be persuaded to meet with advocates and to take their proposals seriously.
One of the featured speakers at the Pivot study launch sees queer communities as “natural allies” for sex workers because they fight for law repeal and the subsequent reforms described in the Pivot report.
Maurganne Mooney is an aboriginal court worker in Toronto; a woman with experience of her own as sex worker, a soldier in the Canadian Forces and a front line worker in shelters for battered women.
In Vancouver to support the launch of the Pivot research, Mooney urges queer people to actively support the demands for decriminalization and law reform for sex workers across Canada.
“We are your natural allies,” she says. “Many sex workers are members of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans communities, and we all share an interest in changing the laws that give the government control over our sexual choices.”
Beyond Decriminalization: Sex Work, Human Rights and a New Framework for Law Reform.