Although the West End’s Sex Workers Memorial has broad implications, the Sept. 16, 2016 unveiling was still a prideful neighbourhood event. It was inspiring to listen to stories of people’s struggles for the rights of sex workers. All three local First Nations Bands were represented: Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Squamish, and their unceded territory recognized. They blessed and honoured the proceedings.
Standing next to the Sex Workers Memorial, which takes the form of a beautiful Victorian lamp post with a red light, we see the Master of Ceremonies, activist and former sex worker, Jamie Lee Hamilton (left) and UBC sociologist Becki Ross (right), both co-founders of the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee which began in 2008. The memorial stands outside St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Jervis St. between Davie St. and Pendrell St. in the heart of the former red light district for sex workers. It’s hey day was between the mid-70s and the mid-80s. One might find it odd being outside a church, but the Anglican Church had always been supportive of the plight of sex workers in the area, at times offering them sanctuary. As St. Paul’s Reverend Jessica Schapp stated: “Jesus was a friend of sex workers.” The memorial was a collaborative project with St. Paul’s and meetings of the Sex Workers Memorial Committee were held in the church.
There is a Genie award winning documentary, Hookers On Davie (1984), which explores the situation. A study guide with the film claims the West End was the prostitution capital of Canada in the early 80s with more than 150 prostitutes working the streets from noon till 4 am, 7 days a week. It might have created a sort of Mardi Gras atmosphere as Jamie Lee Hamilton asserts, bringing business to local restaurants, hotels, etc. However, not all local residents were happy. Claims have been made that Expo 86 was coming and the area needed to be “cleaned up.” As well, Hamilton feels there was a move to gentrify the West End.
Discontent among residents led to the formation of Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE) led by Gordon Price, former NPA councilor and current urban planner and former Vancouver Centre MP Pat Carney. Gordon Price was also involved in the Shame the John’s campaign which took to the streets doing just that and bringing a lot of attention to the issue. This resulted in Vancouver’s Street Activities bylaw in 1982 which helped drive sex workers out of the West End into Yaletown, Mount Pleasant and the Downtown Eastside. Workers were fined by the city and eventually $28,000 was collected, about the same amount costed by the city for the memorial. In addition, in 1984, there was a BC Supreme Court injunction issued by Justice Allan McEachern which basically banned prostitutes from the West End. Many people felt this left prostitutes in less protective areas and may have eventually facilitated the brutal murders of sex workers by Robert Pickton.
These negative effects on sex workers were lamented by speakers such as City Councillor Adriane Carr who personally apologized for the actions taken by City hall in the 80’s and called for the legalization of prostitution in Canada. Among many sympathetic speakers were Councillor Elizabeth Ball, Councillor Andrea Reimer, former Mayor Phillip Owen, MP Jenny Kwan and former MP Libby Davies. Everyone felt we must value all lives.
So where does all this leave laws for prostitution in Canada today. More than a little confusing and contradictory:
Legal: selling sex
Illegal: living in a bawdy house or brothel, living off the profits of another’s prostitution, soliciting for sex
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, struck down Canadian laws which had prohibited keeping a brothel, living off the avails of prostitution, and soliciting for sex, and stated that banning communication for prostitution merely to keep it out of public view, created an unacceptable risk for sex workers. The ruling gave the Federal Government a year to respond which leaves us with the current law.
Current law: Bill C-36 (2014 Response)
Legal: selling sex, sex workers can self-advertise their services
Illegal: buying sex, communicating for the purpose of prostitution in a public place, advertising the sexual services of others
Many people are scratching their heads at Bill C-36, and sex workers feel that as long as buying sex is illegal, the net result is to drive them underground into dangerous places.