BC sex-work activists are hoping the release of the inquiry report into the investigation of Vancouver’s missing and murdered women will help change Canadian prostitution laws already being challenged in two court cases.
The report, delivered by Commissioner Wally Oppal Dec 17, on the police investigation that finally led to the arrest of serial killer Robert William Pickton, 63, concluded there was systemic police prejudice toward the drug-addicted, poverty-stricken sex workers Pickton targeted in Vancouver.
The former judge and provincial attorney general said “blatant failure” in police investigations allowed Pickton to continue hunting his prey in the city’s Downtown Eastside.
“The missing and murdered women were forsaken by society at large and then again by police,” Oppal writes in his 1,448-page report, entitled “Forsaken.”
Oppal made 63 recommendations, including providing emergency-services funding for sex-trade workers, funding for law reform research and financial resources for full-time sex-trade liaison officers.
The biggest-ticket item, though, is likely Oppal’s call for a regional police force. Currently, the Lower Mainland is policed by a mixture of municipal and RCMP forces.
Pickton, a Port Coquitlam pig farmer, was convicted in 2007 of six counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of drug-addicted prostitutes he picked up from the Downtown Eastside. Twenty other charges of first-degree murder were stayed.
Oppal describes a link between police strategies to displace and contain sex workers and the increased levels of violence the workers face.
Sex-work advocates say those police strategies are ongoing.
“It’s getting harder for these women to work down here on the streets,” says DJ Joe, a member of the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAVS). “The police are always harassing them.”
But, says Chief Constable Jim Chu of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in a statement, “we are committed to learning from our mistakes and have taken and will continue to take steps in the future to ensure that the same type of errors are never made again.”
Chu says Oppal’s report offers suggestions “to augment measures already implemented in the VPD to further safeguard the most vulnerable in our community. These measures include the complete restructuring of our Missing Persons Unit and our outreach programs, such as our fulltime sex trade liaison officer and the joint VPD-Community Sister Watch committee.”
Though it is legal in Canada to be a prostitute, laws continue to criminalize aspects of the work, including any public communication for the purpose of prostitution, working inside a bawdyhouse and living off the avails of prostitution.
These sections of the Criminal Code are being challenged in BC by former sex worker Sheryl Kiselbach, who brought the case forward with SWUAVS, and in Ontario by three sex workers: Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott.
The BC case began in 2007 but was quickly derailed by rulings denying Kiselbach the right to plead her case. In September, the Supreme Court of Canada granted Kiselbach the right to challenge the laws in BC.
In Ontario, the court of appeal struck down the bawdyhouse law and modified the law that makes it illegal to live off the avails of sex work in March. But communicating publicly for the purpose of prostitution is still illegal.
The federal government is appealing the Ontario decision to strike the two laws, while the BC case has yet to return to court.
The cases are being closely watched by the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (PACE), formed by former sex workers and their allies to provide support and services to women, youth, men and transgender sex workers.
Former executive director Kerry Porth says she was pleased to see Oppal use the term “sex workers” throughout his report.
“He certainly addressed the harassment of sex workers,” she says.
Porth says society as a whole needs to alter its attitude toward sex work. “If society determines one group of people is of less value, it dehumanizes them and invites a predator to come down and prey on them,” she says.
Prostitution activist Jamie Lee Hamilton is disappointed Oppal made no recommendations about the Criminal Code.
“Making a positive recommendation to the attorney general around the prostitution sections of the Criminal Code should have been a no-brainer, but unfortunately Commissioner Oppal did not go there,” Hamilton says.
“I wish there had been more emphasis on the Criminal Code because that ties in to harm reduction,” Hamilton tells Xtra.
Hamilton, who says there are many positive aspects to Oppal’s report, says Vancouver must continue to lobby for decriminalization.
Asked if Oppal’s report would lead to BC asking Ottawa to do anything about the prostitution laws, BC Justice Minister Shirley Bond notes the two cases challenging the laws remain before the courts.
“Because there are court cases [underway], I am not going to make comment about the Criminal Code, as that would be inappropriate,” Bond says.
But the BC government has the right to intervene in such cases, notes Katrina Pacey, one of the lawyers who worked on the Kiselbach-SWUAVS case. The government of Ontario intervened in the Bedford case in defence of the Criminal Code provisions, she points out.
“It would be our hope in light of this report that the province files to intervene and brings this case to the Supreme Court to highlight the harms of sex work,” Pacey tells Xtra.
“I want to assure you,” Bond says in a statement, “that our government will use these recommendations as a blueprint for building a legacy of safety and security for vulnerable women over the coming years.”
In his report, Oppal says the missing and murdered women’s lives were marked by violence, addiction, racism and mental health issues. He says the relationship between police and sex workers was marked by distrust.
Oppal says poor report taking and follow-up of missing women led to “critical failures” by police. Had police acted on the reports they received, they may have generated more leads on Pickton sooner, he says.
He says police “utterly failed” to warn women of dangers to their safety.
Oppal recommended a 24-hour drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside for women. Bond immediately stepped in with $750,000 for the WISH Drop-In Centre Society to expand the services it provides to vulnerable women.