This first appeared in The Lawyer's Daily here.
In 2014, the Conservative federal government passed the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act which came into force on Dec. 6 later that year. The Act called for a five-year review since coming into force or by December 2019. To date, no review or attempts to review the Act has taken place.
I publicly opposed the Act in July 2014, testifying in the same day at then-minister of justice Peter MacKay, now Conservative leadership candidate. MacKay expressed concerns around human trafficking and prostitution being one in the same.
Sadly, unreliable statistics are often repeated by mainstream media and politicians or policy makers themselves. Take, for example, this 2018 paper authored by Statistics Canada that alleges the majority of trafficking takes place in large urban areas. The source for that statement comes from a 2015 report authored by Canada’s Department of Justice, which contains neither numbers nor any quantifiable support to make the statement.
These urban-centric narratives often leave out other important experiences, including what sex work may look like in rural, remote or northern areas of Canada or what it looks like when workers cross borders. I support the sex work movement’s call to support workers’ rights, but I also have grave concerns about how policy shaped around or in response to sex working issues respond largely to urban-centric issues.
First, there is no dispute that the issues intersecting at sex work and human trafficking are complex. While one may consensually enter the sex trade, they may find themselves experiencing exploitation at the hands of employers, other workers or in environments that require them to rely on a third party, often colloquially referred to as pimps.
In my case, I had a madam. My madam also had a driver. My madam would call me and see if I was available; I had to make myself available during the times I was on-call. Then, she would proceed to tell me about the potential client, and I would let her know if I was ready to meet the client. The client would be waiting at his home or his hotel. The clients were often an hour’s drive away, far outside the city, with no public transit or taxis available. The clients were often hunters travelling in the area, with hunting rifles next to their beds in their hotel rooms.
Being what the law would view as underage, Indigenous and a woman, this meant that I had to rely on others to ensure I did not go missing or murdered. There is absolutely no way I could attend alone. Only once did I ever have to leave a booking — there were drugs scattered around the room. My driver was there to pick me up. I always returned home, safely.
When I started working in clubs, I learned about the camaraderie among the women who worked together on what is called the circuit — a route that women who travelled together (or not) would frequent. The women would share tips about when a club was good to work in, meaning good for money but also good for clients and security.
The women would also share tips on what clubs to avoid and would easily point out the undercover police officers, helping others to avoid them. I learned about touring and it was touring that helped me secure a spot at a London club. I learned about the other clubs in the region and how frequently this circuit was travelled by other women. The most attractive characteristic about the southwest corridor was that a worker did not have to secure a licence, as is in larger city centres like Toronto. You could show up, ask to be put on schedule and live in the dancer house, make scheduled pay on top of the pay made while working.
Without any doubt, these types of arrangements become attractive. They are also often touted by the same policy makers who repeat largely unsupported statements as being hubs for human trafficking. If it wasn’t for this circuit, I likely would have never gone back to school and today, now practising law in two different jurisdictions, supporting the very same women who I shared the camaraderie with on and off the stage.
The review, if it is to take place, must look at these experiences and ensure that a diverse range of experiences is included. Any review must also recognize that while yes human trafficking can occur, the policy that informs any sex work must be informed by lived realities and experiences. There should be no space for grand statements without any quantifiable support, namely numbers and statistics.
In the end, policymakers must come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to listen to those with experiences similar to mine — a young Indigenous woman who was pushed into the sex trade due to lack of safe housing, domestic violence, exploitation and poverty. It was not sexual exploitation that I experienced in the sex trade; it was sexual exploitation that pushed me into the sex trade.