Metro Vancouver sex work activist says feds have not lived up to talk of law reforms

Dustin Godfrey

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A New Westminster sex work activist says she is disappointed by the failure of the Liberal government to act on its past opposition to Canada’s sex work laws.

The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), Canada’s current sex work legislation, was passed in 2014 by the then-Conservative government. Following what’s commonly referred to as the “Nordic model,” the law seeks to curb demand for sex work.

Hailey Heartless, a New West-based sex work activist, says the Liberal Party has failed to fix criminal laws that do more harm than good for sex workers. Photograph By Jennifer Gauthier

The law came after a 2013 Supreme Court of Canada ruling struck down legislation that outlawed brothels, advertising sex work and third parties living off the profits of sex work. Instead, PCEPA means it’s legal to sell sex but not to buy it.

Hailey Heartless, a New West-based sex worker and activist, says the law does more harm than good for sex workers and likely violates the 2013 ruling.

And the Liberal Party agrees – at least, it did when PCEPA was brought into effect. When the party formed government in 2015, then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told The Tyee she would review the law. In 2018, the Liberal Party membership voted in favour of decriminalizing sex work.

But nearly four years into the Liberals’ mandate, as a federal election approaches, Heartless says no progress has been made and activists feel brushed off by the federal government.

“I hear a lot of politicians say that they support sex workers,” Heartless said, but statements of support rarely see the light of wider public discourse. “It’s just not something that wins votes, and it’s not a fight that they really want.”

Heartless says she was also in favour of the Nordic model at the time PCEPA was passed. But she became a sex work activist in November 2016 after becoming a professional dominatrix, and she now sees the model as counterproductive – even if one considers sex work to be inherently exploitative.

“You don’t have to like the work that other people are doing, … but it’s no reason to fight against the rights of the workers doing that work,” she said.

“A lot of us don’t like pipelines in B.C., but nobody’s out there trying to make the lives of the workers building the pipelines worse. We’re not fighting against their rights to use hard hats or steel-toed boots. … The only way you can fight exploitation in the industry is with the workers.”

Whether we criminalize the sale or purchase of sex, the effect is more or less the same, Heartless says. Stigmatization pushes sex workers into the margins, leaving them vulnerable to violence and exploitation, and it discourages workers from seeking recourse through legal avenues.

“It’s difficult to go to the police; it’s difficult to trust police and not know if they’re going to charge you or interrogate you,”  Heartless said.

The effects aren’t just theoretical – one study found that sex workers in B.C. are less likely to access services since PCEPA was passed. Another study found that nearly all Lower Mainland sex workers either reported working conditions to have stayed the same or gotten worse since PCEPA was passed.

Between 1997 and 2002, 67 women went missing from the Downtown Eastside, many of whom were found murdered. That spurred the formation of B.C.’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI), which recommended regional police forces, including the New West Police Department, adopt policies that deprioritize enforcement of sex work laws in cases involving consenting adults.

“Calls in relation to sex work are not something we receive a large number of in New Westminster,” said NWPD acting chief constable Dave Jansen in a statement. “Having said that, our priority is to work collaboratively with those doing sex work in order to share safety information, establish trust and to treat everyone with dignity.”

January Marie Lopez, a 26-year-old transgender woman, was killed in 2012, found with multiple stab wounds in her apartment. Aside from Lopez, however, the rate of murdered sex workers has effectively dropped off the map in the region – in the city of Vancouver, no sex workers have been murdered in over a decade.

But Heartless said street-level sex workers – among the most vulnerable in the trade – can still often feel stigmatized by police or service providers. For that reason, Heartless wants to see full decriminalization of sex work in Canada, something that’s gained little traction in Parliament and made little progress in the courts.

“I think it’s not something that politicians can bring forward on their own for political reasons,” Heartless said. “So I think it’s something where sex-work activists are going to have to keep pushing.”

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