MS. JUSTICE MINISTER, About Those Prostitution Laws…

Below is a letter I sent to Canada’s federal Justice Minister on November 23rd, 2015 regarding Canada’s prostitution laws.  Because the current government has expressed interest in changing or removing the legislation, you may also want to express your concerns.  Please feel free to borrow from my letter as you compose your own.  Remember to include your own MP, along with Justice Critic, Rob Nicholson.

Jody.Wilson-Raybould@parl.gc.ca     Rob.Nicholson@parl.gc.ca

Dear Ms. Wilson-Raybould,  You have my deep appreciation for your willingness to take up the mantel of Justice Minister of Canada. 2015 certainly is the right timing for an aboriginal leader of your stature to advocate for the rights of Canadians at the federal level.

Jody Wilson-RaybouldAs you’re well aware, there are presently great opportunities to shape the way Canadians think about gender equality and aboriginal issues. And there is no more important matter before you than the exploitation and violence that befalls countless young and vulnerable Canadians in the sex trade. I’m confident that it’s from a compassionate desire to help, that the government might consider a different approach in prostitution legislation.

There is a great deal of confusion on this issue. And, as you receive input, I can only imagine how conflicting, and potentially misleading, the messages will be. From the perspective of one who has extensively studied this issue, and also, walked alongside countless exploited young people during the past 30+ years, please allow me to offer my input. I’ll do this by briefly addressing three of the most common fallacies you’ll be hearing about prostitution.false-1

With various other western countries having changed their legal approaches to prostitution in recent years, we have the vantage point of learning from their experiences. The body of evidence (the actual studies as opposed to select anecdotal reports), internationally, strongly demonstrates that decriminalization increases not only the volume of sex trade activities, but also the rate of human trafficking and other forms of violence.

When Bedford versus Canada was brought before the Supreme Court, Alan Young (the lawyer who challenged constitutionality of the old prostitution laws), testified that no country that legalized prostitution has met their objectives in reducing violence. The only reasonable conclusion, for the Canadian context, is that that legal prostitution would actually decrease safety for prostitutes and increase the criminal element.

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Canada’s human trafficking laws are important for punishing violent individuals and raising awareness about this hideous crime. But ironically, they do very little to stop human trafficking. In fact, it’s the prostitution laws that can potentially have a much greater impact on this phenomenon.

JC JUST PicTo understand the game, you need to know the players. The trafficker, or “pimp”, is rarely a serious businessman. While a great deal of money changes hands, it slips through his fingers as quickly as it comes. Pimps operate in a subculture where achievement is gauged primarily by notoriety. Avoiding prosecution does nothing to build the infamy that is the quintessential measure of success. Because of that, risk of arrest can be as much an enticement as a deterrent.

Contrast that with the typical sex buyer, or “john”, who cultivates the opposite persona. To protect his good and decent reputation, he will avoid arrest at all costs; even if it means utilizing a little self-control. On balance, the pimp, is more violent than the john, and so, he more easily draws our contempt. But if not for the buyer, there would be no pimps.

Like any industry that operates on the principal of supply and demand, if the money stops, the industry grinds to a halt. You cannot stop the violence of the sex trade and also allow men to fund it. Therefore, the most effective way to stop the violence is by prosecuting the men who buy sex.

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As long as one remains in proximity to the darkness of the sex trade, perceptions are skewed; laws are cruel, police are the enemy and violence should be accepted as a normal part of life. The things that expose a woman to, and keep her enmeshed in, the underworld, should rightfully evoke compassion and a desire to understand. But she must not be the one to guide us on matters of justice, while in that mindset. 

There are, however, many who, exit the sex trade and regain their place in society. And they do this in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These are the “sex trade survivors”. When they cut their ties to the street, they can begin to heal; with the change of environment, they can start to hope again. While some avoid any talk about the violence they escaped, others confront it, speaking on behalf of those who either have no voice or cannot grasp the truth. Ms. Wilson-Raybould, you have promised to proceed in a way that is open and engages with people. I’m wholeheartedly behind you. If you want to help those caught in the sex trade, listen not to “sex workers”, but to those who can accurately explain what it means to be one.

The Canadian model on prostitution provides this country’s very first offering of meaningful protection from commercial sexual exploitation. And it aligns with the values of Canadians, as the voices of the 31,172 respondents to the federal government’s public consultation clearly indicate. The rationale for discouraging the prostitution is well founded. Some of Canada’s leading police forces are now beginning to use the new laws to more effectively protect vulnerable women and children. Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit Insp. Joanna Beaven-Desjardins publically put her city’s ‘johns’ on notice last Thursday, saying, “We’re coming after you. You are the problem.” York Regional police have arrested at least 22 sex buyers so far, this month. The list goes on.

The Liberal government will fail if the intent is to create safety within a burgeoning sex trade. Toronto Pharmacist, Allen Chow had the opportunity to amass 70 hours of rape videos because it was, at the time, legal for him “hire” prostitutes. You will not significantly reduce the harms that result in the chronic medical conditions, addictions and mental health problems that plague prostitutes. You won’t stop them from taking their own lives, or been killed, directly. And you’ll make little ground on women’s issues, and especially aboriginal women’s issues, as long as men can rent their bodies. To undo our new prostitution laws would be a callous betrayal of those they were meant to protect.

I sincerely thank you for your diligence on this critical matter,

John Cassells, Street Youth Specialist, SIM Canada

Somewhere Downtown


Somewhere DT 2The slam of car door drew my attention to a parked taxi, as I navigated the slick streets on a rainy Vancouver night.  As the cab sped away, it’s fare, a young man and two young women, disappeared into the darkened doorway of a strip club.  With my side window down to reduce the glare, there was no question, one of the two girls was Michelle.

Her picture was on the front page of Sunday’s Vancouver Sun.  The paper said, police suspected “foul play” in the disappearance of the 14 year old.

It happened after a Friday night youth event in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey. Michelle promised to go straight home. Instead, she boarded the Sky Train in search of a little fun. It wasn’t long before she found it. In a foolish move, she accepted an invitation to party with three young men. They were friendly and had a bottle of alcohol. To Michelle, it seemed harmless enough.

When the bottle was empty they delivered her to another team at a house in New Westminster. Here, older men would alternately force drugs upon her, and then themselves. She was never left alone. Given no food and allowed no sleep; threatened with harm should she try leaving.

When her mother contacted me the morning after Michelle’s disappearance, my heart sank. I was the girl’s youth leader and one of the last people to see her. I cleared my calendar to search for her.  I began by making phone calls and sending emails to those who I knew would rally to pray for a missing girl.

As far as where to search, I had little to go on.  I spent considerable time in Surrey and New West. I even got a far as Burnaby.  I soon realized, mine were not the only “Missing Girl” posters. There we others, the same age as Michelle, that had vanished.  My heart broke.

As the weekend passed, I was no further ahead. But around the supper hour on Tuesday, Michelle managed to get a moment on a pay phone. She called a friend, who was a regular at my drop-in centre. The news, that she was “somewhere downtown”, quickly got back to me.  I picked up a volunteer and headed into Vancouver.

Having no idea where to start, I began by driving along the streets of the lower east side. I was taken aback by the number of girls working the street corners: several dozen in a few city blocks!  Knowing that the odds of finding the girl were slim, after two hours of searching, I started wondering if we should just go home. But I still had half a tank of fuel, so I kept driving.

Somewhere DT 1Around midnight, a wrong turn led us into the heart of downtown where the streets were brighter and busier.  As I guided my Jeep along the seemingly endless roadways, I began to lament that “somewhere downtown” meant Michelle could be ANYWHERE downtown.

As I charted my exit from that area, something compelled me turn left; to take another pass along Seymour.  But the urge to turn the steering wheel seemed strange.  I second guessed myself.  Perhaps my guilt was getting to me; that a more vigilant youth leader would have prevented Michelle from going missing in the first place.  Clearly, I just wanted to fix this.

It was irrational that had come downtown at all.  But I did it because, hours earlier, I had experienced the same kind of feeling.  It was like a still small voice whispering to me, “Go bring her home.”  So in spite of all my rationalizing, I, again, did what I felt I needed to do.  I turned left.  Within moments, Michelle was brought out of that taxi cab on Seymour Street.  That’s how I ended up there; and at just the right time, to see her.

When the trio entered the strip club, they had no idea they had been spotted.  My helper called for police while I found the best place to park.  Now, standing across the street from the club, there was nothing to do but wait for law enforcement.

Ten minutes passed. Nothing.  Then, as quickly as the three entered the building, they were back on the sidewalk. I would learn later that inside the building they had joined an older man at a table in the show lounge.  He was simply referred to as “The Boss”.  But soon, bar staff insisted Michelle would have to leave. The Boss, told the younger man to take the girls outside, saying, “There’s another place that will let us in with the kid. Wait for me; I’ll be out in a minute.”

Immediately, we made our move.  I can’t say I was as confident as I might have appeared.  Though the man cradling our treasure was young, he was very large.  Surprisingly, that there was no opposition, as we snatched Michelle from the arms that held her.  Alarmed, the young man jumped back, allowing us to escort Michelle walked to my vehicle.

Within a few blocks I was able to flag down a police cruiser.  We waited while they raced over to the club.  They were too late.

Michelle PastelMichelle wouldn’t accept medical treatment but agreed to an interview with the officers. After ninety minutes at police headquarters, the detectives re-emerged with Michelle.  They informed me Michelle’s captors were part of a sex trafficking ring suspected in the disappearance of other girls.  Police hadn’t been able to stop them.

“Within another day or two, she would have been gone,” he told me. “You’d have never seen her again.  You really got lucky, this time.”

“Luck,” I replied, “had nothing to do with it,” for I knew who was watching over this precious child.

This true story has been published, with Michelle’s permission, by Brine Books in 2014.  To keep the story brief, the important involvement of family members (Chris, Doug and others) has not been mentioned.