Sex workers who work in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, British Columbia have faced some of the most extreme violence in Canadian history: Robert Pickton, Donald Bakker, and others have preyed on female identified sex workers here for decades. So why are the sex workers in this part of Canada more vulnerable than in any other part of the Country? What makes Vancouver different?
The difference cannot be attributed to Canada’s sex work laws that conspire to force sex workers to work on the street in isolated locations to avoid the police – as that applies to all sex workers across Canada. The difference is the sheer number of injection drug using sex workers that live and work in the DTES. As Canadians, we are letting this community of vulnerable workers down in two very tangible ways with these two recent pieces of legislation:
The Respect for Communities Act (C-2), and the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (C-36).
Bill C-2, a Conservative bill that became law this past summer, outlines a new, extremely prohibitive framework for setting up new supervised injection facilities (SIF) across the country, and will also make it difficult for the only existing SIF, Insite in Vancouver, to meet these requirements and remain open. Street based sex workers in DTES have benefitted from the health and safety services provided by Insite over the last 12 years. This new legislation does not directly impact all sex workers in Canada, but it creates a huge disservice to the street based sex workers who also inject drugs.
Bill C-36, a Conservative bill that became law in November 2014, is one that continues to criminalize the buying of sex between two consenting adults, but NOT the selling of sex. In a June 5th 2014 CBC News interview, Katrina Pacey from the Pivot Legal Society, referring to Bill C-36, stated that, “This is not the “Nordic” approach, nor is it a Canadian variation on the “Nordic” approach. It is an unconstitutional variation of our broken laws that impose more danger, more crimination, and fewer safe options, contrary to the requirement of the Supreme Court of Canada to address these dangerous and ineffective laws.”
As a nurse at Insite, a female sex worker once confided in me that there was concern about a violent john in the area. Due to this risk, she had arranged for someone to ‘spot’ for her (‘spotting’ is the act of looking out for someone’s safety who is engaging in sex work). But Bill C-36 actually considers ‘spotting’ a criminal act in itself, as it equates this activity to being employed by a sex worker, and as such serves to criminalize those who are only wanting to help keep people safe from harm.
So what are the consequences of both of these bills?
Addressing C-2, the research shows that many more lives would be saved from overdose and disease with increased SIF’s, but those benefits are being dismissed. And even for people who believe that treatment is the only option for people who use drugs (PWUD), a well-known fact is that, once you are dead, you can no longer receive treatment.
With C-36 we are continuing to criminalize all activities around sex work except for the actual act of selling sex. Working indoors would undoubtedly be safer, especially if there were other sex workers working together in the same facility, perhaps with a body guard. But they are unable to do so due to the current law prohibiting sex workers to employee staff and work indoors as a regulated business. As such, sex workers often choose to work in remote, isolated areas outside and alone because they do not want to be targeted by law enforcement.
Bills C-2 and C-36 only serve to maintain an environment where vulnerable Canadians are at risk from physical harm, disease and death. Harm reduction facilities like Insite provide heath and safety services that have been proven, through extensive documentation, to save lives, which is precisely what health care and human rights legislation should be designed to achieve. Bill C-2 and C-36 however, do not.