Speaking truth to power on Parliament Hill

As a very small woman, I have spent a lifetime craning my neck to talk to people who tower over me and dodging people on sidewalks who don’t register me in their peripheral vision while they stride down the sidewalk staring at their smart phones. But I have also felt small in the face of overwhelming stigma and marginalization due to my past participation in sex work and my struggles with substance misuse.

My very first introduction to Katrina Pacey, Pivot’s Director of Litigation and leader of their now decade long sex worker rights campaign, was when she talked me into appearing on a panel with her about the decriminalization of sex work. It was my first experience of having my direct knowledge of sex work and the negative impact of prostitution law on sex workers entirely dismissed by an audience and by one of the other panellists (who had no experience in sex work, but who felt that they knew best what was needed for women like me). It was shocking but gave me my first taste of speaking truth to power. Since then, Katrina has made a regular habit of throwing me into the deep end and I will never be able to thank her enough.

I have just returned from a whirlwind two days in Ottawa where I was joined by sex workers, activists, and allies from all over Canada for a half day of training and a full day of advocacy with Members of Parliament to urge them to develop prostitution laws that are consistent with the human rights analysis from the landmark case of Bedford v Canada. In December of 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three provisions of the Criminal Code relating to prostitution and gave the government of Canada one year to draft new laws. Since the decision was announced, we have learned that the most likely approach the government will take is to implement the “Nordic” model where the purchase of sex is criminalized but the sale of sex is not. In recognition of this serious threat to our victory in 2013, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform was developed to bring together sex workers and organizations to ensure our knowledge is shared with those in power.

Pivot’s sex worker rights campaign has always focussed on street based sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and my goal was to bring a strong message from these women to Parliament that they do NOT want the Nordic model. Regardless of which party to a sex work transaction is criminalized, the sex worker or the client, sex work itself remains criminalized. All of the harms that were identified in the Bedford case – displacement to isolated areas, rushed negotiations, increased vulnerability to violence and exploitation – will be replicated by the Nordic model.

On my second day in Ottawa, I was up at 6:30am to get ready for a full day of meetings on Parliament Hill. As an individual who has always paid a great deal of attention to federal politics, I was excited to finally get to go inside these vast buildings. I was less excited to discover that, at 8:30 in the morning, it was already 24 degrees with a gazillion percent humidity! We had all been assigned to teams in the weeks prior and an extraordinary effort had been made to ensure we saw as many MPs as possible. My team spent the day running from Parliament to the Justice and Confederation Buildings and back to Parliament – all on a tight schedule leaving time to pass security each time we entered a building. As we rushed from meeting to meeting, we would run into other teams doing the same and had the chance to briefly talk about how it was going, reassure each other when meetings hadn’t gone as well as we had hoped and offer tips on presenting information and answering questions. Our team met with two Conservative and one Liberal MPs and, despite our fears, we were welcomed and felt heard by each of them.

After rushing back to the hotel to pick up my bags, I barely made my flight home. Much to my delight, my own MP and staunch supporter of sex workers’ rights, Libby Davies, was on my flight and I was able to debrief the experience with her.

New legislation is expected to be tabled shortly and the last message we left with each MP is a request that sex workers be meaningfully involved in the next steps. We hope to be able to provide evidence during the review process as these laws will have a direct impact on sex workers. As individuals, sex workers sometimes feel very small in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles to achieving their goal of decriminalization but, together, we will continue to crane our heads back and speak truth to power.

- by Kerry Porth, Chair of Pivot's Board of Directors