The spot below the Hastings Street viaduct is a scary place at night. It’s menacingly dark on one side, where train tracks lie. On the other side, where Raymur Avenue runs, two lampposts cast pale yellow light, barely illuminating the strip.
Surrounded by shadows and the din of vehicles rushing overhead, it would be easy to disappear unnoticed from this industrial corner in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Yet it’s an area where many women and men come to sell and buy sex.
Lawyer Katrina Pacey doesn’t know whether convicted serial killer Robert William Pickton stalked some of his victims here. But on the evening of December 17, the day that former judge Wally Oppal released Forsaken, his report on the missing and murdered women, Pacey and about 150 other people marched to this spot.
On this same occasion, the grounds blossomed with red umbrellas, the symbol marking the annual observance of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
“It illustrates what happens when you have law enforcement and neighbourhoods that push sex workers into dark and isolated corners of the city,” Pacey told the Georgia Straight. “It’s a place, we can imagine, where there’s very little assistance when you’re in trouble. We’re here to mark this moment and acknowledge the realities of street-based sex workers.”
The litigation director of Pivot Legal Society is encouraged that Oppal noted in his report that prostitution laws and police enforcement displace sex workers to deserted places, where they are vulnerable to violence.
“That’s very much the result of the criminal law that criminalizes aspects of prostitution,” Pacey said. “And saying that had a direct impact on sex workers’ safety is essentially saying that the criminal laws and law enforcement are partly responsible for the dangerous conditions in which they work.”
Pacey also represents the Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, a plaintiff in a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws. In a media conference at the Pivot offices before the march, SWUAV’s D. J. Joe pointed out that little has changed in the war against prostitution.
“Police are always hiding somewhere,” Joe said. “Now they’re having officers hiding in unmarked cars around the corner.”
In his multivolume report (full name: Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry), which runs 1,448 pages, Oppal states that although it is not within his commission’s mandate to assess Canada’s “contradictory” laws on prostitution, he also observes that enforcement “has become mostly about the control of public space”.
According to Oppal, it is “for the most part about curbing the visibility of prostitution rather than about morality or protection of individuals engaged in the sex trade”.
Although selling sex is not illegal, laws prohibit communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution, and maintaining a bawdyhouse. Although only five to 20 percent of prostitution is carried out through solicitation on the street, Oppal notes that up to 95 percent of arrests are for this type of sex trade.
“I conclude that in the period leading up to and during my Terms of Reference there is a clear correlation between law enforcement strategies of displacement and containment and increased violence against women engaged in the sex trade,” Oppal writes.
Although Pivot director Kerry Porth isn’t pleased with some aspects of Oppal’s report, the advocate for sex workers’ rights is glad that the former B.C. attorney general touched on the effects of Canada’s prostitution laws.
“I don’t think it was within his mandate to recommend decriminalization, but I think the report actually supports that in terms of talking about what makes—especially street-based—sex workers less safe,” Porth said during the media conference at the Pivot offices.
According to Oppal’s report, the murder rate for women engaged in street prostitution is estimated to be between 60 and 120 times greater than that for other females.
Chloe Clarkson lit a candle during the red-umbrella march as a sign of respect for women in the sex trade. The journalism student noted that laws and discrimination prevent these women from working in safer places and conditions. “The stigma around sex, the illegality of it all, causes great harm,” Clarkson told the Straight.
With white chalk, one marcher scribbled “I deserve to be safe” on a concrete brace of the massive columns supporting the viaduct. The sign caught the eye of another participant, Sarah Jensen. She said that although she wished Oppal had pinpointed people who actually dropped the ball in the police investigations regarding the missing and murdered women, it’s more important to her that there be meaningful changes in the working conditions of those in the sex trade.
“Everybody else is safe in their jobs,” Jensen told the Straight. “And why wouldn’t a sex worker be?”
When active sex workers return to that dim and lonely place beneath the Hastings Street viaduct, they’ll probably find comfort in some of the messages written by the marchers on its western wall. One reads: “You are much loved!”