When Katrina Pacey started volunteering with the Pivot Legal Society in 2001, she seemed like an unlikely candidate to become a champion of sex workers’ rights.
She was a law student with a master’s degree in women’s studies, and Pacey’s feminist education had taught her that prostitution was wrong and that the sale of sex was always a form of abuse.
But as she came to learn more about the dangers that sex workers faced in the Downtown Eastside during the Pickton era, her views began to evolve. Her previous assumptions were challenged by the stories she heard from sex workers.
In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Pacey conceded that she had to “unlearn” stereotypes and beliefs as she came to the conclusion that the country’s prostitution laws were putting sex workers in danger and infringing on their constitutional rights.
“I needed to stand with sex workers, which meant standing up to many of my own feminist mentors and many members of my own community and take a position that was in profound disagreement with theirs—which, as a young feminist, was a difficult thing to do but the right thing to do,” Pacey said.
It ultimately led to her being part of the legal team representing Downtown Eastside sex workers intervening in the landmark Bedford case before the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013.
The chief justice at the time, Beverley McLachlin, wrote a unanimous decision striking down three prostitution laws, ruling that they violated sex workers’ charter right to security of the person.
In effect, these laws against keeping a common bawdy house, communicating in public for the sale of sexual services, and living off the avails of prostitution made life more dangerous for sex workers, according to the ruling.
It was a recognition that Parliament must respect the constitutional rights of people who make their living in this way.
“Sex workers are a very diverse community with a very diverse range of experiences,” Pacey said.
Homelessness became huge priority
In 2014, Pacey became Pivot’s executive director—the same year the organization won a B.C. Supreme Court victory brought by homeless people against the City of Abbotsford. The following year, homeless Abbotsford residents told their stories before B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, who ruled that their constitutional rights had been violated.
Pacey credited Pivot staff lawyer DJ Larkin for building trust with homeless people who were living under bridges and in the backwoods so that they felt comfortable sharing their stories in court. They felt safe explaining how they were fighting for the right to live collectively in a public space when the laws of Abbotsford were requiring them to keep moving.
“It’s been incredible to watch how DJ has evolved our litigation, evolved the way we work with clients, and really challenged our legal system,” she said.
According to Pacey, Pivot is now on a firmer foundation than ever before, so she’s decided to resign as executive director after the organization conducts a search early in the new year to find a replacement. She said that after 17 years, she thinks Pivot is ready to begin its next chapter with great potential for growth. And she doesn’t see herself as being the right person to lead it through that next phase.
“It couldn’t be a better time to pass the reins on,” Pacey said. “We have an amazing team. We have a really sustainable organization, a really clear vision, and it’s in such a wonderful place.”
Pivot challenges legislation, policies, and practices that stigmatize marginalized people, undermine their human rights, or increase their poverty. She explained that it steps into areas where there is a “profound need” and where the law can be an important tool to advance the interests of those it serves. It campaigns on such issues as police accountability, drug policy, and project inclusion.
This is true even if those legal cases challenge others in the progressive movement, as long as the arguments are evidence-based and aligned with the advancement of human rights. Pivot only takes on cases that are supported by those who have direct experience dealing with these issues.
“I don’t have that lived experience myself, so it’s very important that I’m very reflective in that work,” Pacey said. “The direction comes from people that know best.”
When asked how she developed the ability to see the world through the eyes of marginalized clients, Pacey credited her mother, Ingrid, a Vancouver psychiatrist. Pacey described her mom as "a really courageous leader" who's been active in the movement for abortion rights, daycare, and other issues of concern to feminists.
“She definitely taught me about the risk of being judgmental and carrying assumptions and not constantly questioning those," Pacey said. "She certainly is the reason why I, from quite an early age, decided I would commit my life to progressive work.”
Pivot created Hope in Shadows calendar
Pacey recalled being at the Bread Garden restaurant in the South Granville neighbourhood several years ago when the idea originated to give Downtown Eastside residents cameras to document their community.
That led to the popular Hope in Shadows calendar, which reflected the best of the neighbourhood, highlighting its resilience and love. Then, as executive director, she was involved in deciding to turn over the Hope in Shadows enterprise to the monthly nonprofit Megaphone magazine.
Pacey said that it felt at the time like she was tearing the heart out of Pivot because it had been such an important part of the organization. But she also realized that this change was going to be best over the long term for the venders and to provide long-term sustainability.
“I realized that a legal-advocacy organization was no longer the right home for that project, even though we loved it dearly,” she said.
In 2016, Opt, a.k.a. Options for Sexual Health, named Pacey as its 2016 Sexual Health Champion for leading Pivot’s campaign for sex workers.
Pacey isn’t sure what her next career move will be, noting that it’s going to take a few months to train her successor. She has considered going into politics at some point in the future, but that’s not on the immediate horizon.
“It will be so fun to think about all of the options,” she said. “I won’t be very far from Pivot. Whatever Pivot needs from me, they’ll get.”