Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Justin Trudeau's stand on decriminalizing still a work in progress

  While I keep my distance from politics, I've somehow ended up on the federal Liberal email list and have been receiving messages urging me to donate to Justin Trudeau and seeking my thoughts. With the heartbreak of Bill C-36 and the further criminalizing of sex work hanging over me, I seized the opportunity to respond to one of the messages to feel out Trudeau's position on decriminalization. Here is our exchange so far.

My response to the Liberals' email asking for my thoughts:

I would like to see Justin Trudeau come out with a clear statement around decriminalizing the work of adult, consensual sex workers. I am a passionate activist on this issue of human and civil rights, and will support the candidate who supports an end to C36 and understands that decriminalization is the best way to reduce risk to sex workers, decrease stigma, and ensure civil equality to a population of workers who are discriminated against and silenced. 

Their response to me a few days later:

Dear Jody,
    Thank you for writing to us about the Conservatives’ recently proposed prostitution legislation, Bill C-36.
    The Liberal Party of Canada opposes this legislation. We have serious concerns that Bill C-36 fails to comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the requirements outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Bedford decision. We are also concerned that this legislation fails to adequately protect the health and safety of vulnerable people, particularly women.
    We have called on the government to produce evidence of the legal opinions it sought in drafting this legislation, however, the Conservatives continue to refuse to release this information. They have also refused to submit this legislation as a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada in order to determine its constitutional validity.
    Given all of these concerns, we remain troubled the legislation will not actually make life safer for sex workers.
    Thank you again for contacting us on this important issue. It is through dialogue with Canadians like you that the Liberal Party of Canada can continue to develop policies that reflect the values of Canadians.
    Kind regards,
    James Cano
    Liberal Party of Canada

And my response back to them, sent today: 

    I really appreciate that someone took the time to respond to my query. However, I urge you to make your platform just a bit more specific around WHAT you will do for sex workers. For instance, I am unclear whether you would support decriminalization of adult, consensual sex work, or if you still like the idea of further criminalization but believe that C-36 isn't a good law for doing that. I feel this is one of the most important civil and human rights issues in our country right now, as tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers work in the shadows without our support, without the same access to civil and criminal remedies such as police, courts, contract law, employment standards, workers' comp.  

    If the Liberals are looking for more information and research to help them take a firm position on this issue, here are some links that I think have great sources of information. The first is the site of a very large research project going on right now in Canada, which involves subjects who are connected to the sex work industry in a variety of ways. The second is the site of an organization I work with from time to time and am very closely tied to, Peers Victoria. The third is the site of Maggie's, a Toronto sex worker organization that has collected some excellent resources. The fourth is the site of Stella's, a Montreal sex worker organization. 

    There's so much more information I'd be happy to connect you to, from all around the world. This is an emotional issue, but the research around it is very clear. Nothing improves - for sex workers or the communities they live in - through criminalization. Yes, bad things happen to some sex workers, but how does any of that improve by criminalizing the work? The question is not whether we'd want our children to be sex workers (we activists are constantly having that question thrown at us), it's what kind of a work place and safety structure we'd want for them if they were doing this work. 

    Please take a clear stand on this issue as one of human and civil rights. The Liberals stand a very good chance of forming the next government. Be brave, humane and evidence-based, and support a decriminalized workplace for adult, consenting sex workers. 

And what will they say next? Stay tuned. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

My secret crush: Vince Ready

Cartoon in the Ubyssey by Indiana Joel
     Earlier this week, somebody with a sense of humour and an obvious knowledge of B.C. labour history swapped a photo of  mediator Vince Ready for the saintly image of God in the Wikipedia entry on God. Vince Ready - our homegrown Holy One.
    Once bickering parties in a labour dispute learn that Ready has been called in to help them reach a settlement, you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief as everyone starts thinking about getting back to work. I'm sure Ready has all kinds of skills as a mediator, but at this point, after so many high-profile settlements between employers and employees otherwise predisposed to fight each other to the death, just the mere uttering of his name seems to signal that labour peace is coming soon.
    His latest loaves-and-fishes act involved the B.C. teachers' strike. But any long-time B.C. journalist such as myself knows that's just the most recent in a long string of successes. I suspect that part of his secret is that he never gets involved until both sides are wrung out and quietly wishing someone would just come along and help them save face, but he must have some extraordinary people skills as well.
      I've had a crush on the guy for more than 20 years. My one and only face-to-face encounter with Ready was in the lobby of the Harbour Towers Hotel, where he was mediating between the provincial government and whatever big union was furious with them at that time. I introduced myself to him as a reporter for the Times Colonist. He smiled that charming smile of his and said yes, he'd followed my work for years, and it was a pleasure to finally meet me.
     Even in the moment I didn't believe that he had any idea of who I was. But what did it matter? Vince Ready cared enough to flatter me with a fake story about how he'd been noticing my byline, and I swooned like a school girl. If he uses that same charm during mediation, I can see why everyone caves.
     After that, I became an avid observer of any labour dispute that Ready was called into, and how they always seemed to rapidly end in a settlement. I even tried to convince him to let me follow a mediation of his for the newspaper, a request that I now admit might have had something to do with me also finding him very good-looking. Back in those days and perhaps still, he presented as a blue-collar guy in a good suit, a look that I hadn't known I was partial to until swooned by him that day at Harbour Towers.
    At any rate, he said no, and I've never laid eyes on him again. But Vince, I think of you whenever a labour dispute turns protracted - which, in B.C., means you're never far from my thoughts. Thinking back on that distant day at the hotel when I (briefly) considered whether I should make a play for you,  I couldn't have imagined there would come a day when I would say this, but thanks for getting my grandkids back to school. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

So much misinformation in Senate sex-work hearings

     Having a Twitter feed during the Senate's meetings on sex work is both a blessing and a curse. I got so much minute-by-minute info yesterday on the opening day of the meetings that I practically felt I was there, but at the same time I spent the day fuming at all the inane, hurtful and poorly informed comments being made by some of the senators and that infuriating justice minister of ours, Peter MacKay.
     Sex workers and sex-worker organizations that support decriminalization have a huge presence on Twitter. The feed coming out of Ottawa was frenzied from the moment I staggered out of bed yesterday morning, as that three-hour time difference meant that my 7 a.m. rising came a good hour into the meeting. And man, my fellow tweeters were incensed, mostly by MacKay and his continuing assertions that the "vast majority" of sex workers are victims in need of rescue, not workers in need of legal workplaces.
    That statement alone set the tone for the fiction that mostly passes for decrim debate coming out of government these days. In truth, no one knows anything about the "vast majority" of Canadian sex workers, because research has been skimpy and almost exclusively focused on survival sex workers on the street. That group accounts for just 10 per cent of the total sex worker population, and even among that 10 per cent, the diversity of experience is far more varied than research with a few people could ever capture.
     The Tories want to give the impression that they have consulted on this move to criminalize sex work even further. But isn't it strange that Peter MacKay toured Canada in his consultations and never spoke to even one sex worker who is currently working? He didn't stop in at Pivot Legal Society while passing through Vancouver, despite that organization's prominent role in the Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year that threw out three of Canada's main prostitution laws as unconstitutional. He didn't visit sex-worker organizations. Here's how Pivot summed up MacKay's time in Vancouver, in theory consulting with "the people" on C-36.

... Minister MacKay did not spend his time meeting with sex workers. He did not visit where sex workers live or see where they work or listen to their stories. Instead, he hosted private meetings with senior lawyers from major law firms and attended fancy breakfasts at private clubs.

    The Vancouver group Sex Workers United Against Violence sent out invitations to every one of our 412 MPs to come and learn more about the realities of sex work in Canada directly from the people working in it in the Downtown Eastside. Only one MP took them up on it.
    Anyway. We are worlds apart, those of us who feel strongly that decriminalization is the only way to assure more safety, equality and respect for sex workers, and those who think they can abolish the industry by criminalizing more of it. Do your own research into that position and what you'll learn is that there isn't a country in the world that has had success trying to abolish sex work.
    I fear the fix is in, though. The Conservatives have carefully collected feedback that shores up their position, and victims of abuse to tell their admittedly tragic stories to the media as if they were representative of every sex worker experience ever. Never mind that Conservative statements about how further criminalization will protect sex workers fly in the face of the experiences of sex workers and the findings of international research around measures to reduce violence.
     And yes, there will be another court challenge, but years and years will pass before the courts can rule yet again that our laws hurt far more people than they help. Peter MacKay, I hope you realize that the suffering of all the sex workers shut out of Canadian society and forced to work in even more unsafe conditions between now and then is firmly on your shoulders.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Revised post: First day of Senate invitation list shuts out sex workers, but things improve on Days 2 and 3

 And yet another revision as of Sept. 10: Yes, the speaker lineup had more balance than I initially thought, but sex-worker organizations note that even so, the ratio was 2:1 in favour of further criminalization of the industry. A wise media scribe also noted that media tend to cover the first day and the last of a meeting, and that it had to be more than coincidence that the first day was almost exclusively anti-decriminalization. 

Mea culpa: Turns out I was looking at only the first day of the Senate meetings when I wrote this, in which the lineup is very much abolitionist. But here's the full list for the 3 days of meetings, and I see many more sex-work groups have been invited to speak. Sorry, Senators! Carry on.

Looks like the Conservative-controlled Canadian Senate is taking extreme measures to avoid hearing anything that might shake up their conviction that all sex workers are exploited victims when the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee considers Bill C-36 next week.
     The bill will add even more criminality to sex work if it becomes law, making the purchasing of sex a crime for the first time in Canadian history. It's a controversial bill, coming on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in December that threw out as unconstitutional three of the country's major laws against sex work.
     A wise government would have taken a step back to really consider the implications of the highest court in the land ruling that Canada's anti-sex-work laws hurt more people than they ever helped. It would have taken a long look at the significant research in Canada and all around the world that has found that the best way to improve the safety, equality and lives of sex workers is to decriminalize the work.
     But the Conservatives had their minds made up long before that Supreme Court decision was handed down. They opted for a different tack, choosing to just shut out the voices of anyone who doesn't think like they do on this issue. The invitation list of those requested to present to the Senate committee on Bill C-36 next Tuesday is blatant confirmation of that.
     Only two of the 11 organizations and individuals invited to present hold a view different than the Conservatives. These two groups will be alone in the crowd in their support of decriminalization, and their view of sex workers as capable people able to make their own choices and deserving of equality, safe workplaces and respect.
     Three presenters are traumatized parents of missing or murdered daughters. I'm sure their tragic and emotional stories will play well on the news that night, even though it's hard to see that C-36 would have changed anything about the circumstances of their children's deaths had it been in force back then. None of the presenters are sex worker organizations, even though Canada has quite an abundance of well-informed groups armed with convincing research in support of decriminalization.
    Instead, the Senate committee will be hearing mostly from groups that support  Bill C-36. They are passionately against prostitution. They're all supporters of the muddled version of the so-called Nordic model that the government is proposing, in which the buyers of sex are especially targeted for criminal charges, but the sellers nonetheless remain at risk for a variety of charges as well (not to mention are forced to retreat even deeper into the shadows to try to protect their customers).
     The Senate presenter list was clearly carefully crafted to ensure that most of the day will be devoted to groups saying exactly what the Conservatives want to hear. You wouldn't want to be the two groups in the room with something different to say facing a lineup like this one:
  • Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Member of the Women's Coalition For The Abolition of Prostitution, which believes no one makes a truly free choice to work as a sex worker.
  • Native Women's Association of Canada. Also a member of the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. 
  • Walk With Me Canada. An anti-trafficking organization that opposes decriminalization and supports C-36.
  • Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. The name of this group pretty much speaks for itself. The group sees all sex work as male violence against women and wants prostitution abolished.  
  • K. Brian McConaghy, Director of Ratanak International, which describes itself as "a Christ-centered organization committed to serving the people of Cambodia by being an agent of change in Cambodia’s social, economic, and spiritual landscape." What that's got to do with sex work in Canada, I don't know.
  • The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. A coalition of 160-plus church denominations that have strong opinions against gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and sex work.
  • Ed and Linda Smith, a Regina couple whose teenage daughter left home, got into drugs and ended up murdered in 1990 while working the streets in Victoria. Fighting against prostitution has been a cornerstone of the Smiths' lives ever since. 
  • Mothers Against Trafficking Humans. Anti-prostitution group founded by the mother of a young woman who went missing in 2006. 
    The two presenters who will speak that day in support of equal rights and equality for adult, consenting sex workers are Pivot Legal Society and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Both are fine organizations with thoughtful, well-considered positions, but I fear their voices will be lost. I note that both have also been placed in speaking positions that are just before a break, which makes me wonder if they will also end up rushed through their presentations after the more Conservative-friendly groups have had their say. 
    Like all the other Canadian sex-work organizations, PEERS Victoria didn't get an invitation to present. But they sent in a presentation anyway. Read it here if you're still not sure what's so bad about Bill C-36.
     Let's hope at least a few senators will have the decency to seek out the points of view of the other side, that at least some will feel foolish supporting a law opposed by the very people who it aims to "save." You'd think that before you rode off on your white horse  in the certainty that there was a nation of exploited, helpless victims needing rescued from prostitution, you might want to hear from a few of them first.