3 min

Sex workers question police DNA collection

Is a national databank in the works?

"THIS IS A HUGE VIOLATION OF OUR RIGHTS." Amy Lebovitch of Sex Professionals of Canada wants to know what police are planning to do with her colleagues' DNA, and why they won't protect sex workers while they're still alive. Credit: Brittney Kwasney photo

A police campaign to quietly collect sex workers’ DNA across Canada is raising red flags.

Sex workers say it’s a violation of their rights. They don’t trust the police or government’s intentions.

And, they say, this collection opens the door for authorities to collect DNA from other groups too.

“If the government said everyone must submit their DNA, they’d be up in arms,” says Sue Davis of the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals. “It’s a very hot-button issue.”

Prof Michael Goodyear of Halifax’s Dalhousie University studies prostitution issues. He agrees with Davis.

“Imagine if we wanted to collect nurses’ DNA in case they were murdered,” he says. “Most murdered people are pretty easy to identify.”

Davis says an Edmonton Police Service officer recently told her the DNA profiles would be used by Project KARE (Edmonton’s missing persons task force) to identify dead sex workers.

“How about protecting me so I don’t die?” she says.

Davis says changing the prostitution laws would remove the need for such data collection.

Though prostitution is not itself a crime in Canada, “communicating for the purposes of prostitution” and “living off its avails” are both illegal.

That’s the crux of this problem, say all the sex workers and advocates Xtra interviewed for this story: the laws around prostitution force workers out of the public eye and into violent or possibly fatal conditions. Change the laws and there will be no need for any DNA collection, they say.

But collecting DNA? “This is a huge violation of our rights,” says Amy Lebovitch of Sex Professionals of Canada.

RCMP K Division spokesperson Cpl Wayne Oakes says the DNA samples are taken voluntarily from those “involved in high-risk lifestyles.”

Oakes says information gathered can only be used if a person becomes the subject of a missing persons or homicide investigation.

He says Project KARE “has not and will not share any of the information collected.”

Davis says the officer she spoke to told her more than 700 workers have given samples in the Edmonton region.

But, she says, when she asked the officer how many prostitutes were currently working in the city, she was told 30 to 40. She wants to know what happened to the rest of the samples.

Edmonton isn’t the only area collecting sex workers’ DNA.

Corine Arthur, of the Surrey Women’s Centre Society, says sex workers there were told by police their DNA was needed so police could rule out still-living women whose DNA may have been found at the Port Coquitlam farm of convicted serial killer Robert William Pickton.

“We couldn’t get anybody to confirm or deny that was the truth at the time,” she says.

RCMP E Division spokesperson Cpl Annie Linteau confirmed to Xtra West Mar 8 that DNA was collected for elimination purposes from people who had been at the Pickton farm.

“That DNA will be held until the close of the investigation,” Linteau says.

Davis says she’s also heard of similar DNA collections in Halifax.

But a Halifax Regional Police Service spokesperson denies this.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that unless it’s being done through an organization that helps sex-trade workers,” says Const Brian Palmater.

That’s not the story from Oakes. He says the debate over the practice originated in Halifax. “They were engaged in this process very early on,” Oakes says.

Stepping Stones is a sex-worker support program in Halifax. Spokesperson Rene Ross says she’s heard “snippets” about DNA collections in the past. “I haven’t heard anything in quite a while,” she notes.

The Vancouver Police Department has not engaged in DNA collection, according to spokesperson Const Lindsey Houghton.

“Before the VPD were to get involved in something like this, we would have to explore the legal ramifications and implications and develop stringent policies around the collection, retention and use of the samples,” Houghton says.

Word has also surfaced of DNA collections in Winnipeg where a number of sex workers have been killed, say officials at Sage House, which provides support for street-involved women and transgendered people.

On Sep 25, 2009, the RCMP, the Winnipeg Police Service and the Province of Manitoba announced the formation of a task force to review cases involving missing and murdered women. A spokesperson for the police declined to comment.

All of it leads Davis to ask if some form of national database of sex workers’ DNA is being created by the RCMP in association with other police agencies.

“I can totally see that happening,” she says.

Lebovitch says such collection just makes police work easier once sex workers are dead.

“What about while we’re alive?” she asks. “How will this stop violence against us? It’s not addressing the problem.”

Moreover, she wonders what will happen when authorities across Canada have a bank of sex workers’ DNA.

“Are they going to sell it to the highest bidder? Maybe [for] some study on sex worker DNA?” she asks.

Which, says Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association, leads to another concern around such highly personal data.

“There is a very important principle that information collected for one purpose cannot be used for another,” Vonn says. “It’s not always the case.”