‘Fighting to see justice done’

Organization advocates end to violence against sex workers



Winnie Cornish still gets understandably emotional about the unsolved murder of her daughter, Darlene MacNeill, a decade ago.

MacNeill was a crack addict and a sex worker whose partially naked body was found floating in Lake Ontario near the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club in the fall of 1997. She had been strangled.

That there are up to 11 unsolved murders of sex workers in the city since 1991, according to figures provided by the Sex Workers’ Alliance of Toronto, is completely unacceptable for Cornish and others like her. She feels it indicates there is an apathy among police and society that allows violence against sex workers not to be taken seriously.

“I think just as much attention should be paid to my daughter’s death as anybody else’s, even a judge’s daughter or a policeman’s daughter. We are all human beings. We’re all mothers and sisters and daughters and granddaughters,” an emotional Cornish, 65, told the Sun by phone from her home in Victoria, B.C.

“I just wish that there was some magic thing that we could do to make people wake up, and make them realize (violence against sex workers) is wrong and what (the police) are doing is not enough.”

Today marks the fifth annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a movement that began in Seattle for the victims of the Green River Killer, who killed 48 women, mostly sex workers and runaways, beginning in 1982.

Organizers of Toronto’s vigil, who say the movement now honours all missing and murdered sex workers and advocates an end to violence against sex workers, changed tonight’s vigil to Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Allan Gardens at Sherbourne and Carlton Sts. because of the weather.

“The working girls would still come out (today), because they work in all types of weather,” said Anastasia Kuzyk of the Sex Workers’ Alliance of Toronto. “But we don’t want to put people at risk.”

Whenever it’s held, Cornish thinks the vigil is important because it helps people struggling to cope with the unthinkable acts that have struck families like hers all across the country. Also, she said, it’s important to raise awareness about what happens to sex workers.

She hopes this year’s memorial will mean more to the general public because of the Robert Pickton trial and his recent conviction on six second-degree murder charges. He still faces charges in the killings of another 20 women.

Between 1991 and 2004, 171 female sex workers were murdered in Canada. And according to some statistics, street-level sex workers are 60 to 112 times more likely to be victims of fatal violence than non-sex workers. Sex workers have the highest rate of murder by occupation in Canada.

According to Kuzyk, a semi-retired sex worker who has been championing the rights of prostitutes for years, there is a stigma of sex workers in society that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to change the way violence against sex workers is handled.

“Sex work is a job, and violence isn’t in the job description,” she said, noting that is the slogan for this year’s vigils being held in major cities around the world today.

“We’re fighting to see that justice is done to honour those who have lost their lives because of their high-risk lifestyles, which to me is just another label society puts on people to blame them for what has happened to them.”

Since 1991, Kuzyk said there are 11 missing or murdered Toronto sex workers whose deaths or disappearances have never been solved.

They include: Julieanne Middleton, 23, Virginia Coote, 33, Darlene MacNeill, 35, Lisa Lyn Anstey, 21, Donna Oglive, 24, Cassandra “Tula” Do, 39, Anne Fernando, 50, Lien “May-Ling” Phem, 39, Florence Harrison, Teresa May and Lori Pinkus.

“Just think, if we had 11 murdered convenience store workers, do you think we would be having this conversation right now?” she said. “Police departments, as a whole, share in the culpability because of the apathy and the ineffectiveness of investigating and finding whose responsible for crimes committed against sex workers.”

As for what needs to be done to improve the working conditions of sex workers, Kuzyk said it’s more than just decriminalizing the industry, a move her organization supports.

“Realistically, there has to be more than just decriminalizing the laws. We have to address the stigma and give opportunities for women to work safely who are on the lower level of the sex worker hierarchy, like those who are addicts,” she said. “The reality is, we can change the laws, but if we don’t change the stigma, what’s the point?”

What’s worse, she said, is that pop culture promotes the negative view of sex workers and even legitimizes violence towards them. Her case in point is the Grand Theft Auto video games, which rewards players for beating up, robbing and killing prostitutes.

“There’s a video game out there where you can run down prostitutes and kill them and beat them up and take their money. It feeds into the whole subculture of allowing the violence to continue,” she said. “Violence against sex workers should not be normalized, but it is.”

As for what Cornish thinks needs to be done so that no one has to go through the pain and suffering she struggles with daily, it might be a matter of making people listen.

“Maybe we should start marching in the street, but I’m 65 years old and I can’t fight this any more. But somebody’s got to do it,” she said.

For Kuzyk, one of the most important things that has to happen is that people stop blaming the victim, though she says that is changing — albeit very slowly.

“Twenty years ago, they said we asked for it. Ten years ago, they said, ‘What do you expect?’ Now they say it’s a dangerous profession, but it’s still blaming the victim,” she said. “They might not change in our lifetime, but at least it’s heading in the right direction. It’s unfortunate that it came at a price … When you add up all the missing and murdered sex workers across Canada, we’re talking a couple hundred.

“We shouldn’t have to change how we live in order to protect ourselves from violent men. Violent men should be the ones who are held accountable for what they do.

“But it’s because it’s sex and people get all squeamish.”



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