Sex trade workers prepare to organize lobby group

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 Friday » February 15 » 2008

Andrew Thomson and Jessey Bird

The Ottawa Citizen

An advocacy group for Ottawa sex workers, modelled on those in other Canadian cities and discussed for nearly two years, could be a reality after this weekend.Organizers of Sunday afternoon’s meeting say Ottawa sex workers are “under attack” by police, city hall, and neighbourhood groups such as Together for Vanier and the Hintonburg Community Association.

“The idea is very much to meet and have the group set the agenda,” said Chris Bruckert, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. “What it will hopefully be is a collective voice that speaks the reality of sex workers and their lives.”

Organizers are asking area sex workers to visit Club SAW on Nicholas Street, where Jenn Clamen, an outreach worker from the Montreal-based Stella group, will speak and begin the organizing process.

“This is desperately needed in Ottawa,” said Ms. Bruckert, adding that “it is really unfortunate that we have nothing.”

Ms. Bruckert and her colleague, Colette Parent, presented a study of street prostitutes in Ottawa and Gatineau in May 2006.

The study recommended that sex workers form an advocacy association to lobby for safer working conditions and liberalized prostitution laws. They also found that most of the 19 women they interviewed had been robbed, beaten or sexually assaulted, but didn’t report the attacks to the police because they feared they would be arrested.

“The reality is that sex workers are incredibly victimized, particularly street-level workers,” said Ms. Bruckert, adding they are 60 to 100 times more likely to be killed than the rest of the population.

But it is street-level prostitutes who organizations such as the Hintonburg Community Association have long been complaining about.

“They are absolutely the most vulnerable people in our Canadian society and anything that tries to help them and protect them is good,” said association president Jeff Leiper.

“The problem that I think they are going to face … is that these women are victims of their addictions. “This can have a very terrifying effect on communities,” said Mr. Leiper.

“No one is arguing that the needs of the community shouldn’t be met,” said Ms. Bruckert. “But we’re arguing for communication, and developing strategies that won’t at the same time make sex workers vulnerable.”

In the 2006 report, Ms. Bruckert said an advocacy group could help improve relations with the police so sex workers feel more comfortable about reporting attacks and robberies. The group could also offer health advice and legal support.

A similar group, Stella, was founded in Montreal in 1995. It provides a drop-in centre, education and a “Bad Tricks and Assaulters” list. Its goal is to decriminalize sex work, protect female workers and inform the public. Similar organizations exist in Toronto.

“The one concern that I would have is that an organization that speaks for prostitutes is likely to organize for legalization, which we have a long history of opposing,” said Mr. Leiper.

“Will we be advocating for changing any laws? I don’t know,” said Ms. Bruckert, adding that it depends on what the group’s members wish to do.

Sunday’s meeting will feature a presentation by Ms. Bruckert, who has also criticized a new nine-person Ottawa police unit focused on street crimes, and community safety letters sent to people seen cruising through areas known for prostitution. Another topic on the agenda will be allegations of “police-endorsed neighbourhood vigilantism,” according to their release.

The meeting will be held from 12 to 3 p.m. Sunday, at 67 Nicholas St. The public is barred from the session.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008


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