Two months ago, the women who lead the incredible Downtown Eastside organization Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) gathered around the conference table at the Pivot office and stuffed envelopes. Four hundred and twelve envelopes, to be exact.
They were sending letters to each and every Member of Parliament and Senator in response to the new sex work legislation, Bill C-36, that the federal Conservatives introduced this summer.
The women of SWUAV wanted our federal politicians to come to the DTES community, meet with them, listen to their stories, and see what their lives are like; to understand how the legislation they draft directly impacts their lives.
Last week, that one Member of Parliament came and met with SWUAV members in the DTES. She listened to their stories and toured the neighbourhood. She saw where they work and where they live. She heard stories about the importance of screening clients, working closely with other women and having full access to the police. She heard how these safety measures are impossible under Canada’s existing prostitution laws, and will continue to be impossible under Bill C-36.
At the same time, Justice Minister Peter MacKay was in Vancouver and he was also here to speak to Vancouverites about Bill C-36. However, Minister MacKay did not spend his time meeting with sex workers. He did not visit where sex workers live or see where they work or listen to their stories. Instead, he hosted private meetings with senior lawyers from major law firms and attended fancy breakfasts at private clubs.
December 20, 2013, represented one of the greatest victories for sex workers in this country. That was the day the Supreme Court of Canada struck down provisions in the Criminal Code that harm sex workers’ health and safety.
Conversely, June 4, 2014, represented one of the greatest setbacks for sex workers’ rights in this country. That was the day Peter MacKay unveiled Bill C-36, legislation that criminalizes the purchase of sex and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for sex workers to work in safer indoor venues and with others. In short, it makes their work incredibly dangerous and puts their lives at risk.
That MacKay and the federal Conservatives failed to adequately consult with sex workers when they drafted this legislation is no surprise. This out-of-touch lawmaking has typified their approach since they formed government.
That no Member of Parliament, save for one, accepted an invitation to speak with the women whose lives will be most affected by this legislation is beyond disappointing. It’s a violation of the contract between those that govern and the people they represent.
Despite the disappointment, the women of SWUAV remain steadfast in their resolve to fight bad laws that endanger them. It meant so much to the women to be heard this one time, and they will continue to demand to be heard by the government that claims to want to protect them. As one member of SWUAV said in the meeting:
“If one person can listen to us, that might lead to change in the world.”