VIOLENCE ON SEX TRADE WORKERS POST PICKTON
Since Robert Pickton has been charged and locked away for life, many citizens tend to believe that violence against sex workers has all but disappeared. The Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP Joint Missing Task Force have focused their efforts primarily on the Pickton case and the task force has been mandated with overseeing the missing poster, which was created when many women in the Downtown Eastside suddenly began disappearing.
The problem with the missing poster is that it gives the impression that all the missing cases are attributed to Pickton. Whether this is a deliberate move by the joint police forces to downplay the seriousness of widespread sex worker violence needs to be examined.
On the poster, names of unsolved murders cases are completely omitted and how women's names are added or subtracted to the list remains unclear. As yet there has been no acceptable answers from either the VPD, the sex trade liaison officer or the Joint Task Force. This in itself is quite unsettling.
Since the arrest of Mr. Pickton, another 29 women have gone missing or been murdered in the Metro Vancouver region.
A new list has been compiled and on February 20, 2008, this list was officially submitted to the Vancouver Police board at their board meeting. The names of the missing and murdered women, post Pickton, was worked on by yours truly and Simon Fraser University student, Nikki Scott. So far, the police have not responded favourably to this disclosure and in fact have set about on deconstructing the list. Kind of reminds me of what they did when women first went missing.
The police it seems are going to extreme lengths, claiming to the media or anyone else who will listen that there is only one women missing and of course they neglect to mention the countless murders of known sex trade workers from the Metro Vancouver region since the Pickton arrest. Moreover, a number of these women found murdered after Pickton also went missing after Pickton and they except for two didn't show up on the official missing list.
Deputy Police Chief, Doug LePard at a Vancouver police board meeting in November, 2007 went so far as to state that not one women had gone missing in Vancouver since the arrest of Pickton. Not one. This is hardly surprising considering even former Vancouver Police board chair and then Vancouver Mayor, Larry Campbell, in an official letter written in 2004, claimed since Pickton's arrest in 2002 that violence toward sex trade workers has "essentially all but stopped".
What was shocking regarding the LaPard response was that the VPD in 2002 received an anonymous letter, most likely from the killer of sex worker, Danielle LaRue, claiming he was sorry for her death. The police hadn't even known about Ms LaRue until the killer contacted them. It seems rather odd that Mr. LePard wouldn't have known about the letter since he was a senior high-ranking officer at the time.
As Rider Cooey, a citizen providing police department oversight says, " it seems that the police want to be off the hook with this violence". I'd hate to think that the police would rationalize this way and since the new missing and murdered cases was brought to their attention, they appear unwilling to accept or even acknowledge that sex trade workers continue to be victimized at alarming rates. Their reactions so far are not acceptable and further if the VPD refuses to take responsibility for preventing or eliminating this violence than who will?
The VPD continually claim that the sex trade is a dangerous occupation. Their reasoning behind this is that women are getting into strangers cars and this places them at far greater risk.
No question that getting into a strangers car is frightening and certainly not ideal, however, if one takes at face value what the police are saying, then the logical extension to this belief is that all men are capable of murder and serial killing. I prefer not to go there as I don't think most men or all men are capable of murder.
According to sex trade liaison and 30 year Vancouver police officer, Dave Dickson, " Vancouver has a way higher and disportionate share of serial killing of prostitutes than other jurisdictions". When queried, Mr. Dickson responds he doesn't know why this is.
Since 1985, when sex trade workers were pushed out of the West End as a result of a court-ordered blanket injunction, barring them from their homes and community, violence has increased. Previous to 1985 there was little or no violence reported of sex trade workers. This is not to say that sex workers didn't encounter bad dates but murder was unheard of. Post 1985, Vancouver has seen an explosion in this type of violence.
The most rationale explanation of sex worker violence is the result of prostitution displacement. Vancouver police have tended to address the nuisance factor of prostitution by pushing sex trade workers into abandoned, deserted and dangerous industrial areas. These areas have created breeding grounds for victimization to occur. In fact, as we know from the Pickton situation, the Downtown Eastside DTES and Oldtown area became fertile grounds for predators to anonymously roam about.
Expo 86 also brought further displacement of sex workers and there was an unofficial VPD and government directive to move the sex trade north of Hastings into an abandoned area. Thus the setting for the DTES killing fields had been created.
With the 2010 Olympics coming to town, further displacement of sex trade workers will happen. We are already witnessing this as a new kind of displacement sweeps our city. This displacement comes in the package of Eco-Gentrification and Civil City. Many drug-addicted survival sex workers living in cheap rental apartments are being displaced from their homes as rental buildings convert to condos in time to cash in for the Olympics. There is also a plan underfoot to build high towers in the Oldtown area and these towers will create further sex worker displacement.
A small but vocal group led by outspoken Sex worker Sue Davis is asking for an exemption in the federal laws to allow a sex worker cooperative brothel to operate during the Olympics. While, I don't believe a cooperative workers house will benefit lower-functioning sex workers such as those who are severely addicted or coping with untreated mental illness, there are however, many survival sex workers who are higher-functioning and this cooperative workers house, may well benefit them. It will reduce their stigmatization, keep them safe, reduce and quite possibly eliminate their violence altogether. This workers cooperative house concept allows them to support one another in building community for each other. How anyone can be opposed to this request of less than a half-dozen women to find a solution to their dilemma is unusual.
This request by Ms Davis and her group though has spurned another group into action. This group led by a number of first nations women called No Brothels for the 2010 Olympics, unfortunately, isn't at all helpful in terms of addressing sex worker violence or displacement of sex workers during the Olympics. Their actions so far have only worked to sensationalize the issue and creates a false divide among women. This type of action has no place in advancing human dignity and human rights of sex trade workers and first nations women. For an Aboriginal organization to marginalize another equality-seeking group in this manner is highly offensive.
Aboriginal women not involved in the sex trade have legitimate concern in that they don't want to see their their sisters and daughters offered up as disposable objects for sex tourists. This thinking though doesn't recognize that there are Aboriginal women involved in the sex trade who claim to be there by choice because they had no other choice.
These First Nations sex workers desire confidentiality because they fear these other well-organized and funded Aboriginal women's groups can wreck havoc on their lives if they don't toe the same political position put forward by these organized activists, who exercise considerable influence and power due primarily to their standing in the community.
A number of Aboriginal Sex Workers see a class divide developing between native agency workers and themselves. Native sex workers believe that aboriginal agency workers should be respectful of our and our children's needs rather than engaging in an Aboriginal class divide.
While it's one thing for those who receive paychecks and endless honorariums to champion abolition of the sex trade, what this does to those engaged in the survival sex trade amounts to erasure of our lives. Criminalizing prostitution which abolition does, isn't worthy of a dignified response and according to native sex worker Donna, " these well-educated Indian agency workers have no business telling us what is proper for our lives. Isn't that exactly what the dominant culture used to say to us. It's not up to these Indian agency women to tell us what to do with our lives, thank you very much".
I have witnessed and especially since many of these survival sex workers access the various programs and food available to them, if they don't go along with that type of political stance taken by a particular agency or group, many of these women, many of whom didn't have lots of choices, however, made a difficult choice to enter into prostitution since it was the only available option to provide for themselves and their children's future.
Unfortunately, in many cases because the status quo has prevailed, many of these children are placed at risk and left without a mother. And as history has a way or repeating itself, new generations will continue to meet this same fate.
If there is any one given, this is it. The violence against sex trade workers continue as various groups attempt to portray themselves as the authoritative voices on prostitution. Violence increases and as sex trade worker Sue Davis points out, she would just like to "see one year when a sex trade worker wasn't killed".
Unfortunately the figure ranges from 5-7 women going missing and being killed every year in the Vancouver region. This blight is Metro Vancouver's shame.
Yesterday I was in the heart of Kerrisdale (41st and Boulevard) campaigning for a political candidate. A number of well-heeled Kerrisdale women recognized me and stated they admire my work. One women asked if Olympic visitors would notice a shortage of Vancouver sex workers and I thought for a brief second and answered yes they are all being killed off.
Jamie Lee Hamilton