On August 17th, 2012 the names and addresses of nine women arrested for prostitution were released to the media by Sault Ste. Marie Police. While prostitution is legal in Ontario certain provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code illegalize particular activities necessary to safely conduct the business of prostitution. In this specific case charges were laid against these women who were found to be in violation of Section 213 in the Criminal Code which states ‘communicating for the purposes of prostitution’ is against the law. This is often referred to as solicitation and specifically marks any conversation occurring in a public place around exchanging sexual services for money or any other consideration (e.g. a place to sleep, food, drugs etc.) as an illegal act. A public place can be a restaurant, hotel or a car on a street.
Concerned for the safety of these women and the street sex working community and shocked by the defilement of sex workers rights and safety, Arlene Jane Pitts and Joni Aikens, both former natives of Sault Ste. Marie, flew into action. Together, and with the backing of the Kingston Sex Workers Action Group SWAG, Pitts and Aikens released their OPEN LETTER of support in solidarity with local, provincial and global individuals and organizations on September 10th, 2012. The letter outlines four demands in support of street sex workers and other sex workers in the community and also demands a stop to the arrests of these women.
Aikens emphasized that these demands are realistic and attainable. “All of these demands are specific. They’re things that people can bite into- the Red Umbrella Campaign, getting involved in the dialogue, offering your resources and being prepared to play a role that is appropriate depending on what your lived experience is.”
Until recently, the sex trade industry in Sault Ste. Marie has been kept out of the public eye, often occurring behind closed motel room doors or in the privacy of someone’s home. Over the past decade there have been several attempts at the grassroots level to bring awareness to the community about the needs and rights of sex workers in Sault Ste. Marie. The initiatives always seem to begin the same way but they also end the same way- starting off strong, quickly gaining speed but eventually falling short in stamina. Despite the sincere passion and sense of urgency from the individuals rallied around the cause it has proven to be very challenging to sustain the momentum necessary to continue moving forward.
Impacting lasting change requires educating the community which begins with allies identifying themselves in the community and creating a safe place for sex workers to disclose. Aikens referenced challenges associated with local opportunities to do this including the obvious stigmatization of sex workers and their allies, and particularly in a small northern community like Sault Ste. Marie. “Think about all the stifling issues: the isolation of the community; the secrecy and need for privacy and confidentiality; and all of the risks of what happens to your life when all your personal information is known - the implications with parenting, with health, with legal, with employment.”
In addition to the demands outlined in their letter, Aikens hopes that by drawing attention to this situation that members of the community take up the torch to advance the rights and safety of all local sex workers. “We’re ultimately hoping that momentum around this will pick up instead of fizzling out. It will be critical that peer outreach and sex worker led initiatives are an important part of this. And now that there is attention on it that there will be a push towards policy and attitudinal changes and that we’ll actually see a multi-agency and multi-stakeholder effort to make this happen.”
Among the key players who have the ability to influence the policies affecting the safety of sex workers are the local police. Further disheartened by an article published in the Sault Star on September 8th, 2012, Pitts address her concerns raised by comments from Deputy Police Chief Bob Kates. “A few things really irritated me about the article. Firstly, there was a tone of ‘this is just how things happen and this is how things will always happen’. We need to stop that mentality and stop those things that have always been happening if they are putting people at risk. Just because that has been tradition it doesn’t mean that it is ok.”
“I was also upset by the inference that sex workers are drug users. The stigma that is attached to that is so deep. The assumption that working girls are drug users is not always the case. This train of thought goes in stride with the Harper agenda of ‘ let’s criminalize them, let’s throw them in jail’. This isn’t the way to deal with social issues. Why don’t we challenge this and why don’t we move towards a system of more programs, more services and more education? Let’s raise our children so that they have compassion for people’s rights and dignity whether they’re sex workers or not. This is how we can work towards building stronger communities. This isn’t about bashing Sault Ste. Marie. The Sault is my home and I want to see change and want to see movement towards a place that respects the rights of everyone.”
Aikens also felt incited to respond to statements made by Kates. “He said that we hadn’t received direction from the province. Well, we actually have heard from the province and we’re about to witness the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling in the fall. The courts are considered as a place of last resort when everything else has failed and where we have to create some remedy or response to determine if something is constitutional or not. It is up to us, to not only while waiting for the Supreme Court decision, to influence a culture that is entrenched in Canada and beyond, in order to create change. People within communities need to engage their own responses and be a part of the conversation. We don’t simply wait for officials to make decisions. As citizens we become actively involved in the process and direct it.”
The open letter released to the media is the first step in spurring on the important dialogues and cross-sector collaborations that need to happen to affect significant change for sex workers in the community. Aikens hopes that with the backing of SWAG and other organizations that have led the way in improving the lives of sex workers, that Sault Ste. Marie can develop a model of service which could be adapted by other small communities. “We obviously started up this initiative because we care about the sex worker community. We want to help start the discussion and the opportunity. We’re not dropping out of the picture. I guess what I’m trying to say is that ‘we’re here, we’re not running away’. But ultimately the community needs to pick these pieces up if this is to be a meaningful response moving forward.”
*For more information about the Red Umbrella campaign please email: email@example.com
** If you are a current or former sex worker and would like to confidentially share your experience please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org,
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September 10th, 2012 at 1:03pm | Last Updated at 1:18pm