Jamie Lee Hamilton can finally declare victory after battling prostitution laws for more than 30 years
One of Vancouver's most passionate advocates of sex workers was nearly overcome with emotion after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three prostitution laws.
Jamie Lee Hamilton told the Straight that she broke down in tears upon learning of the decision by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin early this morning, thanks to a text from sex worker Sue Davis.
"Obviously, it's a bittersweet victory because of all the losses of our friends and loved ones," Hamilton said, referring to murdered sex workers. "It's also a vindictation that sex workers are not criminals. What we engage in is not criminal. We can move forward now and, I think, work to reduce the harm to make a safer sex trade."
The Supreme Court of Canada's unanimous ruling struck down laws against communicating in public to sell sex, living off the avails of prostitution, and keeping a common bawdy house.
McLachlin wrote that all of these laws violate sex workers' constitutional right to security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The ruling gives the federal government a year to respond with legislation, if it chooses to do so, which must respect the charter.
Hamilton praised the judiciary for protecting sex workers' legal rights.
"We're so lucky in that regard because our politicians are spineless," she said.
She also called on the Vancouver police board to instruct police not to charge people under the three laws.
Hamilton added that she wants Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council to issue a "formal apology" for the city's treatment of sex workers in the past.
She recalled a "street activities bylaw" in the early 1980s, in which police could fine sex workers for practising their trade in the West End.
She wants the money collected—$28,000 in the first six months of 1981, according to her—returned to sex workers.
Hamilton also remembered marching on City Hall in the early 1980s, with other sex workers, who covered their faces with black masks, as they demanded equality.
In 1984, the provincial government obtained a court injunction forcing sex workers out of the West End.
Hamilton has often argued that this set the stage for sex workers becoming more vulnerable to predators because they were pushed out of a residential area into more industrial zones.
In 1997, Hamilton dumped many pairs of shoes on the steps of City Hall to protest inaction in the face of a growing number of missing women in the Downtown Eastside.
Later, she was charged with keeping a common bawdy house after opening Grandma's House in Vancouver as a refuge for sex workers.
McLachlin's decision noted that Grandma's House was created in response to fears of a serial killer—"fears that materialized in the notorious Robert Pickton."
"For some prostitutes, particularly those who are destitute, safe houses such as Grandma's House may be critical," McLachlin wrote.
Hamilton said she found it tremendously gratifying that the chief justice acknowledged her efforts to protect sex workers.
"It really vindicated the personal struggle that I endured during that time—being charged with essentially being a pimp is not very nice," Hamilton declared. "I was just really happy that they recognized that Grandma's House was a safe house, and we were doing the best to protect ourselves when the law wasn't protecting us. And so it's wonderful to get the chief justice [to say] 'that's so true'."
Charges against Hamilton for keeping a common bawdy house were eventually stayed.
In her closing comment about the Supreme Court of Canada ruling, Hamilton said: "I'm certainly happy that I live in Canada. I'm so proud of our country."