A decisive moment in the 30 year fight for sex workers' rights

Sometime last year, I had a conversation with Jean Swanson – a remarkable social justice activist who has committed over 30 years of her life to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  I was expressing my frustration at the glacial pace of change that seems to be the norm when advancing the rights of marginalized communities. 

Get Updates

Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

I’ve admired Jean for many years and asked her how she managed to stay so calm in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I’ve always remembered what she said to me that day:

 “Kerry, I don’t expect to see everything fixed within my lifetime.  This is a long game ... I picked up the ball from the people who came before me and carried it forward.  When I’m gone, others will pick up the ball and carry it further.”  

On Tuesday June 11, my dear friend and sister activist Sheri Kiselbach and I arrived in Ottawa to attend the final appeal of the Bedford case at the Supreme Court of Canada. We were here to support Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott who launched a constitutional challenge to Canada’s unjust and harmful prostitution laws. Katrina Pacey, Pivot’s litigation director, along with executive director Peter Wrinch, had arrived on Monday to prepare for Katrina's first appearance in Canada’s highest court. She was here represent street-based sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who were granted leave to intervene in the case. We were also joined by her fantastic legal team, made up of women who have been supporting Pivot’s sex worker rights campaign since they were law students 10 years ago.

We were all up early yesterday morning to head to the court to make sure that those who wanted, would be able to get seats. This day is one that sex workers and their allies have been working towards for 30 long years – this was a VERY BIG deal.

At noon, half way through the day-long hearing, the front steps of the Supreme Court became a sea of red umbrellas, the symbol of the sex workers’ rights movement. I was surrounded by sex workers, activists and allies – the community to which I belong. We hugged, we made speeches, we laughed and we cheered. 

I returned to the hotel to watch the afternoon proceedings on livestream with four members of SWUAV (Sex Workers United Against Violence) who had also made the long trip to Ottawa, and SWUAV's Coordinator, Jill Chettiar.  We cheered when Katrina got up to address the court and hung on every powerful word that she spoke. Every one of us was moved to tears because Katrina is not simply the lawyer representing sex workers from the Downtown Eastside, she is our friend and sister.

We returned to the court at 4pm to join the gathered crowd who applauded and cheered Katrina as she exited the building and picked up her beautiful two-month old son.  It was a powerful moment and we all felt a rush of relief and release after a long and intense day.  And then it struck me. How lucky am I to have picked up the ball at this particular moment in time.  I am grateful to the team of activists who carried the ball before me and to the activists who will pick up the ball and carry it forward after I’m gone.