Written by Jane Doe and Frederique Chabot. Published with the authors’ permission.
In Canada, December 6th is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It marks the anniversary of the massacre of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, shot dead by a gunman in 1989, simply because they were women. This December 6th, in a cruel and seemingly deliberate act to manipulate the day and what it represents, Harper’s new prostitution laws (Bill C-36) come into force and effect. Tragically, the Bill duplicates much of the violence and physical harms deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Bedford.
According to legal experts at the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Pivot Legal Society and many others, the new prostitution laws continue to criminalize sex workers and will further promote the sexual assault and murder of women in that sector. The new legislation criminalizes the purchase of sex, communicating for the purpose of purchasing or selling sex, gaining material benefit from sex work, and advertising sexual services. All of which have been marketed to the Canadian public in the guise of protecting vulnerable women, all of which will force sex workers to abandon safety measures and work in danger of violence. To close the deal, the Harper Government is awarding 20 million dollars in funding to the active policing and eradication of the sex trade.
Sex workers, feminists, legal players, academics, researchers, artists and the media have condemned the bill as dangerous and unconstitutional and have documented their positions publically. They are joined by governments and colleagues internationally.
This week, in a further act of derision, Justice Minister Peter McKay pronounced that we “may not ever understand…why these women [murdered in 1989] were singled out for this horrific act of violence” This despite the written statement of the gunman that he did it because he hated feminists who had ruined his life and, in the midst of national scandals and outcry against sexualized violence and it’s systemic roots. Sex workers know and understand targeted violence and have much to tell McKay about it. From Vancouver to St John’s serial murders and rapes of sex workers are sensationally reported in the media. Less known and understood however is that the violent stigmatization and exclusion of sex workers – which includes labeling them as passive victims and their work as criminal – contributes to and perpetuates beliefs that “those” women are unprotected and therefore easily targeted and disposed of.
This December 6th we remember women who are often excluded from mainstream feminism. We remember Indigenous, trans and racialized women. We remember migrant and homeless women, and that sex workers are part of all of those populations.
The Feminist Coalition, which supports full decriminalization and respect for the human and labour rights of sex workers, stands with sex working women on December 6th. Coalition members include 23 rape crisis and women’s shelter agencies from across Canada that work the front lines, battling violence against women in all of its forms. A hard fight made worse by increased government cuts to their funding. Feminists and other allies are the majority who haven’t forgotten that sex workers fought with us to realize the rights of women, gays and lesbians and currently, those of trans women and men; they fight with us to end colonialism, racism and poverty, and for strong legislation regarding child abuse and illegal trafficking. We also understand that the loss of rights for one group of women is a loss for all women and all equality seeking groups and individuals
Sex worker-led organizations, individuals and their allies in Ottawa and across Canada stand with women on December 6th to condemn all sexualized violence and to demand action in the form of non-enforcement of Bill C36 by police and prosecutors. Politicians from Toronto’s city hall are pressuring Premiere Kathleen Wynne to refer the bill to the Superior Court to test its constitutionality.
As we pause and reflect on the prevalence and pervasiveness of violence against women in Canada and internationally, we remember and honour all women who have experienced violence, and those who lead us in the fight against it. That includes sex workers.
Frederique Chabot is a sexual health educator, activist and a member of POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa Work, Educate, Resist)
Jane Doe is a sexual assault activist and Co-ordinator of the Feminist Coalition in Support of Full Decriminalization and the Human and Labour Rights of Sex workers.