Police across the country have been searching the workplaces and homes of prostitutes to find victims of human trafficking.
But some sex workers say the initiative, which comes a month after the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s major prostitution laws, is simply an intimidation tactic meant to harass members of their profession in the absence of the ability to lay charges.
The police force in Durham Region, east of Toronto, took the lead on the national undertaking and will explain Tuesday what happened last week when their counterparts across Canada paid visits to prostitutes.
In Halton Region, west of Toronto, officers found a 15-year-old in a hotel room who, they say, was being controlled by a 22-year-old woman. The girl was taken to safety and the woman was charged with a variety of offences, including procuring a person to become a prostitute.
“We were working in partnership with multiple agencies throughout the country, targeting our own specific areas of course, but in a collaborative effort to try and identify victims of human trafficking,” said Detective Constable Martin Dick of the Halton force.
In December, the Supreme Court declared the country’s prostitution laws to be unconstitutional, saying bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution create dangers for vulnerable women.
Det. Constable Dick said the visits to prostitutes made by the Halton police were about human trafficking, not the sale of sex.
But prostitutes in Ottawa say the police inspections in this city were both intrusive and intimidating and leave them vulnerable to the same types of risks that were highlighted in the Supreme Court ruling.
Emily Symons of POWER, an advocacy group for Ottawa-area prostitutes, said massage parlours, agencies and independent sex workers were targeted indiscriminately. In all cases, she said, the visits were conducted by four male officers, one of whom arranged an appointment on the pretext of wanting sex for money.
POWER distributed the account of one sex worker, identified as Quinn, who said the officers ignored her when she said they did not have the right to search her apartment and threatened her with assault charges when she tried to block them from opening a closet.
“When they asked why I was so upset, I told them that as a woman, as a woman who has experienced sexual assault, and as someone who was not fully clothed or expecting police officers, that I was feeling harassed and intimidated,” Quinn said. “One of the officers laughed.”
Inspector Paul Johnston of the Ottawa police said his force conducted 29 of the visits, all targeting human trafficking, and received just one complaint.
“We’re not doing it as an enforcement-driven initiative, we’re doing it to ensure that the women are actually safe,” said Insp. Johnston. And “we’re here to help them as well. If there’s any issues, it’s an opportunity for them to speak to us.”
When the Supreme Court struck down the prostitution laws, it suspended its ruling for one year to give Parliament time to respond. Alan Young, the lawyer for the sex workers who successfully challenged the prostitution laws, says that has created a chaotic situation in which the law remains in place but cannot be enforced because it has been declared unconstitutional.
Human trafficking is a serious crime and should be treated as such, Mr. Young said Monday. “But, if its going to be the panacea for addressing the gap that has been caused by this case, then a great disservice has been done to both the public and to sex workers,” he said “It trivializes real trafficking and it simply criminalizes activity which the court said needs to be reviewed by Parliament.”
Ms. Symons said the Ottawa police don’t seem to understand that, “if they want to help sex workers and help stop violence and help stop exploitation, then they have to work with sex workers, not against sex workers.”