(Canadian OH&S News)
Organizations representing sex workers throughout the country are condemning a recent police operation targeting human trafficking, contending that it will drive the sex trade further underground and away from safety.
On Jan. 22 and Jan. 23, 26 police services across Canada participated in Operation Northern Spotlight, a blitz on hotels and motels on major thoroughfares in more than 30 cities and towns. Approximately 330 sex workers, some as young as 15, were interviewed and police found some were being forced to perform sexual acts multiple times a day for paying customers, the Durham Regional Police Service said in a statement.
“Although many of the women appear to be making their own decisions to participate for financial gain, investigators found several teenagers and young women were being forced through threats of violence, physical intimidation, drug dependency and other forms of coercion,” the statement said, adding there were eight arrests and 28 charges laid.
The operation involved 180 police officers and other personnel in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick.
Several sex worker organizations — Big Susie’s, Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), Sex Workers Action Group Kingston, Stepping Stone, Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Group and Stella, l’amie de Maimie — released a joint statement on Jan. 29 denouncing “police activities that use deception and intimidation” to investigate human trafficking and exploitation.
The statement said that officers posed as clients to book appointments with indoor sex workers. Several officers then showed up at the workers’ doors, demanding entry in order to check for signs of trafficking or coercion. Once inside, officers “bombard” the workers with personal questions and search the premises and possession, the statement said.
“Harassing over 300 sex workers in this manner is a misuse of police resources, oversteps acceptable police conduct and undermines everyone’s right to fair application of the law,” Chanelle Gallant, a spokesperson for Maggie’s, charged in the statement. Emma, a sex worker in the Greater Toronto Area, said that she understands the importance of identifying and stopping abuse, but these sorts of operations are not the way to do it.
“I mean, several uniformed cops at my door asking to be let in? I would likely let them in just so my neighbours and landlord won’t know what’s going on,” she said in the statement. “The last thing I need is to lose my home, not to mention it scaring off clients and me losing money. It’s not like this is some minor inconvenience.”
Some sex workers feel intimidated, coerced
Valerie Scott, legal co-ordinator of SPOC, said that sex workers expressed feeling intimidated by police tactics and felt coerced into allowing police into their homes and worksites, compromising their privacy and dignity.
Scott added that the operation seemed to contradict a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that struck down three legal provisions surrounding sex work.
The ruling, released on Dec. 20, 2013, struck down sections of the Criminal Code of Canada dealing with keeping or being found in a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution.
The decision gave legislators one year to decide whether to decriminalize prostitution or draft new laws that would not infringe on sex workers’ rights as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.