“We know the consequences of these laws on sex workers’ lives,” says Chabot. “Because of the sweeps, women and men who do sex work, they don’t work in pairs, they’re displaced to isolated areas, they’ll [focus more] on avoiding arrest than screening clients . . . Sex workers have to choose between security of the person and liberty.”
Despite recent claims from the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) that it’s switching emphasis from sex workers to johns when it comes to street sweeps, local cops arrested five workers in Vanier Nov 25.
It’s the fourth sweep in as many months.
“POWER is certainly critical of the street sweeps happening in Ottawa,” says Frédérique Chabot, a member of Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate & Resist (POWER) and co-author of a recent research report on sex work. “Even the name ‘street sweep’ is problematic in our eyes. The language feeds the construction of sex workers as being disposable and dirty.”
POWER and other advocacy groups question why police are still utilizing this tactic despite a ruling from Ontario’s Supreme Court last September that struck down the laws governing sex work. In her ruling, Justice Susan Himel indicated that these laws contribute to the dangers facing sex workers.
Ottawa police say that they are only responding to complaints from the community, but the sweeps happen just about every month — on a relatively predictable schedule.
“We get complaints from citizens about being accosted, about finding drug paraphernalia. Is it the best way, enforcement? I’m not sure, but we have to balance public safety and [sex workers’] safety,” says Sergeant Frank D’Aoust of OPS. “[The Himel] ruling is being appealed right now. Until the appeal is decided, we’ll keep on doing sweeps.”
A total of 14 charges were laid against five women as a result of the sweep, including communication and mischief charges. Two women face additional charges of failing to comply with court-imposed conditions and are being held in custody. The remaining three women have been released on a promise to appear.
“Usually, sex workers get charged for ‘communicating for the purposes of prostitution.’ They’re also given ‘mischief to property’ charges. A non-sex-worker would get such a charge if they broke someone’s window, for example,” says Chabot. “According to the OPS, a sex worker just being in a neighbourhood prevents people from enjoying their lawful property. Workers are also given release conditions that are extremely problematic, such as red zones. They’re basically a banishment measure.”
Often, red zones include areas where workers live, work or access social services — healthcare, for example. Unless workers are willing to move or find work or services elsewhere, they risk being charged with a breach of release conditions.