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Protests to honour Cindy Gladue highlight sex worker concerns

Toronto demo comes day after Ontario says it will uphold Canada’s new sex work law

Chanelle Gallant, co-director of STRUT, a Toronto based sex worker organizing project, speaks at an April 2 protest in Toronto demanding justice for Cindy Gladue, along with missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. The protest came the day after Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the province would be upholding the new federal sex work law, saying that a review by the Ministry of the Attorney General had found the bill was constitutional.

Ontario’s provincial government may have found that Canada’s new sex work law is constitutional, but demonstrations across Canada honouring Cindy Gladue, a First Nations woman who worked as a sex worker, are highlighting some of the issues with the law.

On April 2, protesters at nationwide demonstrations called for an appeal of the the trial of Bradley Barton, who was acquitted of murdering Gladue.

Gladue died in June 2011 in Edmonton. The fatal injuries she sustained were brutal.

Though the Alberta government did announce they would be appealing the not-guilty verdict, just as the protest in Toronto started, those attending also hoped to bring attention to the violence and discrimination faced by First Nations women and sex workers.

On April 1, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the province would be upholding The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act — the new sex work law — telling reporters that a review by the Ministry of the Attorney General had determined that the act was constitutional.

Chanelle Gallant, a co-director of STRUT, a Toronto based sex worker-organizing project, who spoke at the protest, said she could not understand why the government would take that position.

“It’s mystifying to us how the attorney general came to a decision that was in contradiction to what over 200 lawyers who looked at the law found,” Gallant says, referring to a letter sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in July 2014 that outlined various concerns with the act.

“It feels political, frankly,” Gallant continues. “Rather than founded in science and justice.”

Christa Big-Canoe, the legal advocacy director for Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, told the over 200 people assembled at the protest that they could not continue to depend on the criminal justice system in order to make change. “As long as we are only looking at the criminal justice system in Canada, we have so many problems.”

A joint statement released on April 1 by over 20 different organizations, including STRUT, The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Maggie’s Toronto and Sex Professionals of Canada, also decried the government’s decision, noting that the new law only replicates the Nordic model of sex work by criminalizing clients.

“Sex workers have consistently articulated the many ways in which criminalizing them, their clients and their work settings does nothing to protect them, but instead undermines their ability to control their conditions of work to protect their health and safety,” the statement reads.

One speaker, who declined to be identified, also called on Aboriginal agencies and organizations to unlearn the stigma around sexuality. “It is not ok that when somebody discloses that they are trading sex that they are faced with stigma and no support,” they said. “Right here in this city. Right here in our agencies.”

“It can’t be just be up to people in the trade to continue to educate; to continue to call for support; and be met with barriers and be met with law,” they continued.

At the protest in Toronto, one speaker emotionally read a statement written by Gladue’s mother. “Cindy was a kind hearted person who would help you if she could; any way,” the statement read, remembering her as a person who put her two children first.

“Losing my daughter Cindy was the hardest thing I had to go through.”