Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why Sex Workers in Vancouver Received A Civic Apology

Guest Post by Andrew Sorfleet

Jamie Lee Hamilton and Becki Ross speak at sex
workers memorial in Vancouver's West End.
Photo c/o Triple-X
"On September 16, the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee with support from the City of Vancouver, unveiled a memorial at the corner of Jervis and Pendrell Streets to honour the lives of sex workers who were adversely affected by municipal actions taken in the mid-1980s in Vancouver's West End. 
The City of Vancouver recently acknowledged these actions displaced sex workers, creating additional conditions of vulnerability, stigma and harm as well as moved sex work to other neighbourhoods." (Source)

The lamp post reads: "Today, we commemorate and honour their lives, in memory of their ongoing struggle for equality."

A Civic Apology - How Did We Get Here?

In the 1940s, Vancouver was famous for dinner clubs where patrons could drink and enjoy burlesque entertainers. Police raids in search of liquor and vice were common.

In the 1950s and '60s, one such club, The Penthouse, featured famous acts such as Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr. On any given night, as many as 100 hookers frequented the club in search of clients.

One musician recounted how the system worked: 

"Ladies of the evening were charged a $5 cover to compensate for occupying a seat but not drinking. If she left with a customer and returned, her cover charge was increased by $2 to $7. If she left with a customer and returned yet again, her cover increased by another $2 increment to $9, and so on." (Source: Personal Communication)

In 1975, police closed The Penthouse and charged the owners with keeping a common bawdy house. (The owners eventually had their convictions overturned at appeal, and The Penthouse re-opened in 1979.)

With no other place to work, prostitutes took to the streets.

In 1972, Canada's soliciting laws had been redefined as: "Every person who solicits any person in a public place for the purpose of prostitution is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.”

By 1978, when the Supreme Court of Canada (R. v. Hutt) ruled that the term "soliciting" refers to "pressing or persistent" conduct only, street prostitution was flourishing in the West End and Vancouver was called the "Prostitution Capital" of North America.

"We were very organized," says sex workers advocate, Jamie Lee Hamilton, who spearheaded the memorial committee in 2008 with Becki Ross, from University of British Columbia (UBC). 

"I call that era the golden age of prostitution," Hamilton says. "We were a pimp-free zone. If a pimp came down, we'd tell him to put on some lipstick and suck cock like the rest of us." "We weren’t hurting anyone," she adds. "We weren’t criminals like they made us out to be." (Source)

As a result of the 1978 Supreme Court ruling, police forces in major cities stopped enforcing the Soliciting Law, claiming their hands were tied by the courts. 

VPD Superintendant Michelle Davy
apologizes for Vancouver police
actions against sex workers in the 1980s.
Photo c/o Triple-X
Instead, using a community policing model, police advised citizens to form residents associations for the purpose of reporting neighbourhood crime, and to pressure politicians and governments to address the street crimes and nuisance associated with street prostitution.

Between 1979 and 1982, Montréal, Calgary, Vancouver, Niagara Falls and Halifax enacted loitering bylaws to target street prostitutes to address these residents groups' complaints.

In 1982, Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt brought in the Street Activities Bylaw which carried a fine of $2,000.

In the first six months, the City of Vancouver collected $28,000 in fines from sex workers using the bylaw (which the Supreme Court of Canada later ruled illegal).

The City of Vancouver gave former City Councillor Gordon Price $15,000 from those fines so he could study urban prostitution. Except, Mr Price founded Concerned Residents of West End (CROWE) - a Shame The Johns vigilante group. Essentially the $15,000 collected from fines from an illegal bylaw was used to push the prostitutes around.

In 1983, The Supreme Court of Canada (Westendorp v. the Queen) ruled the Calgary prostitution bylaw to be invalid and ultra vires of the power of the City of Calgary which meant that all similar municipal bylaws - including Vancouver's - were illegal.

On July 4, 1984, B.C. Justice McEachern granted the City of Vancouver a "Quiet Zone" injunction, to prohibit prostitution in Vancouver’s West End, in response to complaints about nuisance and traffic congestion (A.G.B.C. v. Couillard) which resulted in evictions of prostitutes en masse from the West End.

McEachern's ruling stated that prostitutes on the Davie Street stroll were a “blatant, aggressive, and disorderly public nuisance” and chastised those who “defiled our city” by “taking over the streets and sidewalks for the purpose of prostitution.” 

He called the West End an "urban tragedy" and prostitutes were banned from their own neighbourhood. As a result, sex workers were dispersed across Vancouver, working in poorly-lit, isolated, and more dangerous areas. (History Source)

Prostitutes were pushed to Yaletown, then into Mount Pleasant, down East Broadway and eventually into the Downtown Eastside.

The move to push sex workers around the city was documented in the award-winning 1984 film, Hookers on Davie, written by Holly Dale, who co-directed it with Janis Cole.

In early 1985, Alliance for Safety of Prostitutes spokesperson Sally DeQuadros challenged Vancouver police over the department's refusal to acknowledge the connection between the recent murder of a young sex worker and two previous knife attacks on young women.
Pointing to the City's injunction, Sally DeQuadros charges that it makes sex workers more vulnerable to attacks in poorly-lit, unfrequented east-side areas.

Then in 1985, the Canadian government replaced the Soliciting Law with Bill C-49 - the Communicating Law which stated that “Every person who, in a public place or open to public view, stops or attempts to stop any motor vehicle, blocks any pedestrian traffic going into or out of any building, stops or attempts to stop any person or in any manner communicates or attempts to communicate with any person for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or of obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute, is guilty of an offence punishable on a summary conviction."

On January 18, 1986, a nationwide street demonstration calling for the review and repeal of Bill C-49 brought out 100 prostitutes and their supporters in Vancouver, 50 in Toronto, 30 in Calgary, 60 in Montreal, and 25 in Ottawa. By February 19, 1986, 117 women and 57 men had been arrested in Vancouver; 180 women and 53 men in Toronto; and 22 women in Calgary. 

Several lower Provincial Courts rule that C-49 infringes on freedom of association and freedom of expression and therefore is of no force (because it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). These rulings are later overturned at appeal.

For over 15 years, violence and murder plagued Vancouver's continually displaced sex-worker strolls, particularly in the Downtown Eastside.

The Communicating Law was finally struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada along with other prostitution laws in 2013.

Today, the City of Vancouver prioritizes the health and safety of all residents and practices a "coordinated and balanced approach to sex work that considers the needs of the whole community."

About the Author
Andrew Sorfleet has worked in the sex industry for over a decade and has been a sex workers' rights activist since 1990. He is currently president of the board of Triple-X Workers' Solidarity Association of B.C.

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