I had planned to write my first post in MediaIndigena about something light-hearted (I’m working on pieces about yoga and an awesome art project). Much of my time is spent thinking about violence in our communities, so I wanted to take on some more positive issues, reminding us of our strengths and possibilities as Indigenous people.
But today I saw that the Canadian government is fighting the recent Ontario court decision by Superior Court Justice Susan Himel, which ruled criminalizing sex work creates higher risk of violence, by saying that it is not the government’s obligation to protect women who choose to put themselves in harm’s way. And this I could not stay silent about.
In a federal briefing filed on Wednesday with the Ontario Court of Appeal, government lawyers say that Parliament:
“is not obliged to minimize hindrances and maximize safety for those that [engage in prostitution] contrary to the law.”
As an Aboriginal woman, this concerns me. This concerns me because women from our communities represent the vast majority of street-level sex workers across Canada, and men and transgender people from our communities remain invisible despite their involvement.
It concerns me because violence against Aboriginal people — of all ages and genders — goes ignored on a national scale. This “blame the victim” mentality is what allowed a serial killer to operate for years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside without any response from police. The violence there was expected, seen as normal, excusable. This is the case in many other communities that have high Aboriginal populations. It’s not as though I think more policing is the answer. But I do think that criminalizing sex workers and blaming them for other people’s violent actions is what enables the high rates of violence in the first place.
What is the government saying by arguing in court that it’s not their job to protect sex workers? They are placing the blame on the victims of violence, who may already be struggling with the impact of poverty and neglect in their lives. Is that their fault too?
This is not about the capacity of the police to provide protection or respond to violence. This is about the stigma around sex work, and the unclear stance the Canadian government has always had about it in their laws. It’s kind of legal, but kind of not. It’s not illegal to engage in sex work, but it’s illegal to live off the profits from it or to negotiate fees for it. This wishy-washy legal stance is finally being clarified through recent court cases, hopefully resulting in sex workers not having to fear arrest for doing something they’re going to do anyway. Why do the perpetrators of violence never fear for their arrest? Why do they never even figure in conversations about these issues? The perpetrators remain invisible, while the victims are marked by both the physical abuse and the social stigma resulting from violent acts.
So what can we do about this? We can start by talking about these issues in our communities. We can start talking about the real issues facing our community members, like quality of life, access to health care, safe housing and family supports. We need to remove the stigma around sex work so that we can better support our relations. If your auntie is working in the trade, how can you support her? Clearly the government and the police don’t have her back, so how can you?
Sarah Hunt has more than 10 years’ experience as a community-based researcher, educator and agitator around issues of colonial violence, sex work, sexuality, youth health and the somewhat less exciting topic of research ethics. She is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, looking at violence in rural reserve communities through the lens of legal geography. On her dad’s side, Sarah is from the Kwagiulth band of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, and is of Ukrainian-English heritage on her mom’s side.
This story first appeared in MediaIndigena.