As Canadians gathered to keep vigil in honour of 14 young women murdered at the École Polytechnique in Montreal 25 years ago, sex workers were themselves facing down the barrel of a gun.
On December 6th, a day when the nation calls out all forms of violence against women, Bill C-36 came into effect. A law which purports to protect sex workers but is, as Madeline Ashby describes it, “not so much a new piece of legislation as a reset button that clarifies the Conservative government’s attitudes toward women, sex, and sex work.”
As Valerie Scott, a former sex worker and one of the women behind the landmark Bedford case, told Canadian Press, “[December 6th] should not solely be for women who were murdered by Marc Lépine, it should also be for women who were murdered by Robert Pickton.”
Thus as Bill C-36 sweeps through our streets, there has never been a more pressing time for Canadians to stand in solidarity with sex workers, particularly as we today observe the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
And it was precisely the prevention of violence against sex workers that prompted the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada to unanimously strike down a series of laws on prostitution in December 2013. As they rendered their judgment, they found that these laws violated sex workers’ “constitutional rights to freedom of expression, to life, liberty and the security of the person.”
The Bill C-36 hearings followed on the initial December 2013, but were merely a carefully orchestrated parable that sought to cloak social conservatism, misogyny and ‘whorephobia’ in the mantle of feminism.
But during the C-36 hearings, the Government of Canada flippantly ignored the constitutionality of the new law it was proposing, notably of Section 7 of the Charter which protects Canadians’ rights to life, liberty and security of person.
This right includes two things: the right to security of person includes control over one’s bodily integrity.
Women’s bodies have long been battlefields on which politicians of all stripes have waged their wars – with the end game often being about “protecting votes, not women.” But the rights of women – all women – to control their bodies has also long been at the heart of the feminist struggle.
It is the right we fought for when we demanded the right to safe and legal abortions. It is what Sue Rodriguez demanded of the Supreme Court of Canada when she asked for the right to die. And, one might argue, it underpinned some of the feminist arguments against the right of the State to control women’s bodies during the Parti Québécois’ Charter of Values debates.
Control over own bodies is sacrosanct and fundamental to ensuring that women are full and equal citizens in the eyes of the law. And sex work is no different.
And second, as sex work activist and law student Naomi Sayers beautifully argued in her open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, “The goal of any gender equality bill should not be making something unsafe in an effort to abolish it.”
It was clear that the government’s intent was not to protect sex workers, but rather to placate the Conservative Party’s political base.
Case in point: “Of course we don’t want to make life safer for prostitutes, we want to do away with prostitution. That’s the intent of the bill,” said Conservative Senator Donald Plett.
And when Bill C-36 received royal assent, sex workers rallied to initiate a massive letter-writing campaign to demand that Premier Wynne take a long hard look at the constitutionality of the law.
It didn’t take long for Premier Wynne to put the Government of Canada on notice, writing:
“I have listened to the debate that has taken place over the last year, and particularly since the introduction of Bill C-36. And I am left with grave concern that the so-called Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act will protect neither ‘exploited persons’ nor ‘communities. (…) I am not an expert, and I am not a lawyer, but as premier of this province, I am concerned that this legislation (now the law of the land) will not make sex workers safer. (…) We must enforce duly enacted legislation, but I believe that we must also take steps to satisfy ourselves that, in doing so, we are upholding the constitution and the Charter.”
And so let us join sex workers on the front lines to demand laws that will ensure that their fundamental right to safety and bodily integrity is respected. Let us stand with sex workers to demand an end to state-sanctioned marginalization of women and the enshrinement of violence in the law, and to echo sex workers’ demand for their Charter rights.
Let us take a moment of silence for the women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, who died at the hands of Robert Pickton, but also at the hands of our own indifference. Women like activist Sereena Abotsway, who spoke up on behalf of the women she worked with when her colleagues began disappearing from the streets of Vancouver. Or Marnie Lee Anne Frey, a beloved daughter who would call home up to eight times a day. And Georgina Faith Papin, a mother of seven, “a ball of fire with a heart of gold.”
Let us refuse to allow our government to consolidate the basis of their political on the bodies of women and affirm the value of all women, whether they are transgendered, Indigenous, Black, immigrant, or poor.
Because whether it comes from a bad date or from our own government, violence inflicted on a sex worker is an attack on us all.
In memory and in honour of Amy Paul, my neighbour and fellow citizen of Ottawa’s Vanier district.
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