Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm going to be writing about the "camping" problems on Pandora boulevard this Friday - did a quick search on Google News around homelessness and discovered this story out of Australia, which now puts its homeless population at 105,000. Can't imagine what Canada's figure would be if we ever added everything up, seeing as B.C. has at least 15,000 people living homeless even by conservative estimates. The one thing that seems to unite all the western, democratic countries these days is a staggering rise in homelessness over the last couple orf decades.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I always wondered how funerals for poor people got paid for, and now we know, at least in Toronto. Haven't been able to find B.C.'s rules yet, but here's a related story from 2008 about the same issue in Quebec. Looks like prices have risen significantly in less than two years if you compare the figures from these two stories.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Creating prey for the next Pickton

Our sex-work laws kill people.
We had a reminder of that just last week, when Willie Pickton’s murderous ways were news again. Only the streets can provide so many potential victims to a predator like him, and it’s our ineffective and dangerous laws around sex work that create those streets.
Then last Friday, the Vancouver Police Department released the report that we all knew had to come - one that detailed the tragic inability of B.C.’s police forces to act on years of tips that women were being killed at Pickton’s farm. I’ve watched our conflicted attitude around the sex industry for too long to be surprised by the public’s muted response to that damning report.
We talk a good game about how much concern we have for the women who Pickton and his ilk prey on. But our actions tell a different story every time. It’s beyond ironic that even as the shameful story of B.C.’s missing women returns to the headlines, the federal government is introducing much tougher penalties that can only increase risks for sex workers.
We light candles for dead women without a moment’s thought for the appalling working conditions that primed them as targets for murder. We lament the Pickton legacy without giving one hoot for the people who we continue to banish to the fringes. The hypocrisy is unbearable sometimes.
I was working with sex workers at PEERS Victoria when Pickton was on trial. Media outlets from across Canada called me frequently to ask what I thought, and whether anything was changing for sex workers now that there had been so much publicity about the hard life of a street-entrenched sex worker.
How can anything change when our laws remain resolutely the same? Working outdoors and alone in the middle of the night would be a dangerous business no matter what product is being sold. As long as we continue to deny adult sex workers a safer workplace and a place in our communities, nothing changes.
The federal government’s recent decision to ramp up penalties for people convicted of keeping a common bawdyhouse will add significantly to the risks. People convicted of operating a brothel will now face a mandatory jail sentence of at least five years (compared to a maximum of two years under the previous law). 
The Department of Justice says the change is needed to fight organized crime. Unfortunately, the tougher penalties will also ensnare many, many independent sex workers and small business people operating thousands of escort agencies, massage parlours and bathhouses across Canada.
Perhaps there are still some people who believe that closing down brothels will eliminate the sex trade. I’m not one of them.
The commercial sex industry thrives in every country of the world, courtesy of a rock-solid customer base and a strong profit motive. A crackdown on indoor venues won’t stop prostitution, it will merely push sex workers deeper into the shadows and closer to the streets.
How is it that we can mourn the Pickton murders so eloquently, yet do nothing to address the real issues for sex workers?
We have erected monuments to murdered women. Lit a few thousand candles in their memory. Spent a small fortune on bringing Pickton to justice.  But we haven’t done a thing to reduce the risks for  Canada’s sex workers, who apparently hold our interest only when they’re dead.
Our laws are as conflicted as we are. The sale of sex is legal in Canada but anywhere that it happens is by definition illegal, because a bawdyhouse is wherever a sex worker regularly conducts business. You can sell sex through a newspaper ad, but risk arrest if caught soliciting customers in a public place.
The last time our country’s police forces cracked down hard on indoor sex venues was in the 1970s. The result was a notable rise in street prostitution and an even more notable increase in assaults and murders involving sex workers.
Can we possibly be here again? That would be the biggest tragedy of all - to have learned nothing from the deaths and suffering of so many women and their families.
Not everybody shares my opinion on the sex industry, of course. But I think even the nay-sayers want laws that work. Our laws are all but useless in preventing the sale of sex, but frighteningly effective at increasing the misery and danger for those in the industry.
Canada has poorly considered law, random enforcement and a strong undercurrent of moral judgment when it comes to sex work. It’s a lethal combination.
More jail time for people with the audacity to want to work indoors certainly won’t change that. Neither will tears and candlelight vigils.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Very worrying stuff going on around the changes to Canada's bawdyhouse laws. By lumping bawdyhouses in with other "signature activities" of organized crime, the federal government will dramatically increase jail term for people convicted of operating a bawdyhouse - from a maximum two years to a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years.

 Seeing as the law has already defined a bawdyhouse as anywhere that a sex worker routinely does business with her clients, that sets the stage for a crackdown on indoor sex work. And as we learned in the last crackdown in the 1970s, that in turn sets the stage for an increase in street prostitution and a rise in violent crimes against sex workers.

Here's the press release and the backgrounder on the issue released by the Department of Justice in early August. I'll be writing about this in my Friday column.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Troubling news: The federal government wants to ramp up enforcement of Canada's bawdy-house laws as part of a "crackdown" to reduce gang activity. In the last crackdown in the 1970s, the result was a drastic increase in street prostitution and a corresponding rise in the violence experienced by sex workers, what with them having lost a safe indoor place to work. Here's an excellent Vancouver Sun editorial from last week and a column by Sun writer Peter McKnight on this alarming issue.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Back to my blogging today after a great kayaking trip in the Discovery Islands. More on that later. In the meantime, let's get serious: here's the report from the Vancouver Police Department on the problems within the VPD and the RCMP that tripped up investigators looking into the Pickton killings in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Kudos to the Times Colonist's Lindsay Kines for kicking his excellent reporting up a notch and cranking up the pressure to get this report out there.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Special friendships grow out of Cool Aid connection

The two young women across the table from me look a lot like friends.
They keep up a running banter. About the disastrous time they tried to go ice-skating. The great meal they shared at Anawim House. How weird it is that they each have parents who’ve been to Germany to see The Passion, and mothers who are nurses.  
Friendships come in all shapes and sizes. The only thing that distinguishes this one is that it took a little planning to make it happen.  One of the young women is a mentor and the other, her mentoring match. They met through a local program that aims to nurture new friendships to life in the region.
The Mentoring Project is a joint effort of the Victoria Cool Aid Society and the Umbrella Society, and is fully funded by the United Way.  Mentors and participants come from all walks of life, although most have in common an experience with mental illness or addiction either in their own lives or that of their families.
Neither Brieana Murray nor Beth Cormier had ever tried anything like the Mentoring Project before signing up last summer.  
Murray, the mentor, heard about it through a friend, and liked the idea of giving her time in a hands-on way. Cormier was just coming out of a rough patch in her life that had briefly landed her on the street; she was searching for ways to “reconnect” when a staff member at Our Place told her about the program.
Eleven months into their match, they’re happy at how things have worked out. Program co-ordinator Marna Lynn Smith says the matches don’t always click so beautifully, but it’s obvious that these two women have found a fit.
“You’re matched with someone your own age and you just hang out,” says Cormier. “It’s not counselling, it’s not meeting with some doctor, it’s not anything so official. Meeting Brieana has provided a little normalcy for my life. I like being able to just chit-chat, and not always dealing with the heavy stuff.”
The program starts with 30 hours of training over 10 weeks for mentors. (Email Smith at msmith@coolaid.org for information on the next training session in September). Smith tries to match people by age and gender, but that’s not always possible; at the moment, there are five mentors under age 25 ready to be matched, but most of the people looking for support are older.
The matching process is “both an art and a science,” says Smith - one that can come down to a gut feeling about “the right moment” for a specific match. People are asked to commit to spending at least two or three hours a week together, face-to-face ideally but via email and phone when the demands of life interfere.
The contract is for a year, with the opportunity to renew at that point or wrap it up with Smith’s help.
“We can check in any time people feel it’s needed. We can even have team meetings to talk things over,” says Smith. “But mostly I don’t micro-manage. The sooner you can get the ball rolling between the people who have been matched, the better things work out.”
The program is intended as an add-on to the more intensive kinds of support some people require.  Smith won’t match mentoring participants unless they’ve got other supports and connections in their lives. Fortunately, the service is part of Cool Aid’s REES program for people with mental illness and addiction, so they can get connected to other supports just by walking through the door.
Cormier appreciates that addiction is included in the mentors’ training. Not all participants have addictions, but having it out there in the open as a potential issue meant Cormier was comfortable talking openly with Murray about her own recovery.
“From my experience, you become your addiction. You become your mental-health issue. To find people who will look at me and take me as a person has meant a lot to me,” says Cormier. “You do get shunned when you’ve got those kinds of problems, and it’s nice to be able to connect through something like this. There’s nothing else like it in the region.”
For those hesitant about stepping forward for support, Cormier has some advice: “Don’t be afraid.” Murray has similar advice for prospective mentors worried about what kind of relationship they’re getting into.
“It’s a friendship,” says Murray. “I don’t know if it’s that way for everybody, but it is for us.”

Friday, August 06, 2010

Public gatherings test our civility - and we get a pass

I always enjoy the annual Island MusicFest, and had my usual good time grooving to the tunes at the Courtenay festival last month.
But it’s the people-watching that’s the best part of a music festival. Pack several thousand people of all ages and backgrounds into a fairground for three days and nights, and things are guaranteed to get interesting.
A whole lot of people in tight quarters is a true test of our civility. Yes, there are rules at MusicFest, and quite a number of security guards and police on hand to try to enforce them.
But when that many people gather in one place, what really determines how things will go comes down to people’s willingness to be tolerant and respectful of each other. And the MusicFest crowd always delivers.
If you’ve been to a music festival, you’ll know all about blanket rules, and the strict but unwritten code that governs the sea of blankets stretched out in front of the main stage.
Blanket rules probably don’t occupy even a few seconds of your thoughts in your non-festival life. But at a music festival, they’re a major preoccupation. When the sun’s shining and the music’s fine, as it was last month, you’ll spend most of your day on a blanket on the grass in front of one stage or another.
So your blanket really weighs on your mind.
You think about how to set it up in the morning in front of the main stage so that you won’t need to check on it again until that night’s concert gets started. You think about the sea of blankets all around you, and how to strike a path through them that avoids the trampling of other people’s blankets. You contemplate the space that your blanket takes up, and whether it could truly fit unobtrusively into that gap in front of the older couple comfortably positioned on their own blanket, or if it would be rude to even try.
Trivial stuff, sure. But the thing about blanket rules is that they work even though there are no actual rules. That they do is a small but heartening testament to the basic decency of human beings.
Camping at MusicFest is another major test of civility. With no reservation system and no designated spots, it’s essentially a free-for-all once you’ve made it into the fairgrounds and a supreme patience-tester just to get to that point.
The painfully slow check-in for campers is the first place civility is severely tested, but I didn’t see anyone lose it in the long, long hours of waiting to get into the campsite.
Once in, there’s simply no predicting what kind of neighbours you’ll get. Too bad for you if you inadvertently end up in the site beside a horde of drunk teenagers  with a dozen coolers of beer loaded up for the weekend. (Thanks for the “Quiet Area” campground this year, MusicFest organizers! Loved it.)
Even if you’ve got the nicest camping neighbours in the world, you’re still going to be in each other’s laps for days on end.
You’re going to hear that nice young couple having a nasty fight, because their tent is right outside your trailer door. You’re going to get a ball bounced off your head from the kids playing soccer two campsites over. You’re going to be in the middle of life being lived out loud, and that includes those enormous snores coming from the guy  in the tent less than a metre away from yours.
You’re going to line up for food, and for the porta-potty. Your bag is going to be searched regularly, and your wrist band examined at every opportunity. You’re going to be cheek-to-jowl with the young, the old, the beautiful, the weird and the vaguely creepy, and you might even end up dancing with one of them.
In other words, you and thousands of other festival goers will endure a series of inconveniences that you probably have little tolerance for in your regular life. But this time you’re just going to go with the flow.
To see it all unfold that way - well, it restores my faith. Rules and laws are all well and good, but it’s the unspoken agreements we make to tolerate each other that actually keep our world rolling along. How we behave when stuffed into tight and potentially unpleasant circumstance speaks to the essence of civility.
Group hug, people. And to all those volunteers and security staff who make MusicFest and all those other big public events enjoyable for the rest of us by riding herd on the handful of party animals who don’t get it: Thank you.