Two Vancouver-based advocacy groups will start distributing thousands of "Know Your Rights" cards to sex workers in the city's Downtown Eastside to create awareness about changes to policing.
Pivot Legal Society and the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV) launched the strategy as a way to reach out to sex workers who might not otherwise hear about changes to policing guidelines.
"It provides a simple message that hopefully will empower sex workers to understand what their rights are and, therefore, be able to go out and live more safely in their communities," said Pivot's litigation director, Katrina Pacey, at a news conference Wednesday.
The double-sided cards are small enough to fit in wallets and outline the law in simple terms, direct workers to organizations that can help if police harassment occurs and create awareness about past police abuses.
Two sentences appear in bold on opposite sides of the card. "In all situations involving sex workers, the VPD's priority is to ensure the safety and security of sex workers." And, "police should not harass, target, arrest or intimidate you for doing sex work."
The Vancouver Police Department released new sex-work enforcement guidelines in January, prompting the two organizations to identify a need for the card.
In a document outlining the new guidelines, the VPD acknowledges that laws related to sex work often conflict with the duty of police officers to ensure the safety of citizens.
The police department declined an interview after Pivot's news conference saying, "we are doing the best we can to get all of the questions answered, but feel the guidelines are fairly comprehensive in defining the problem and outlining our strategy to address it."
Those guidelines state that "the VPD has engaged in a variety of strategies to reduce crime and improve the safety of all Vancouver residents. However, these strategies can sometimes come into conflict with each other."
Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, but many acts related to prostitution are criminal offences. Police struggle to balance enforcement with safety and Ms. Pacey said sex workers are afraid to approach police when they are in danger.
VPD guidelines now acknowledge a commitment to prioritize safety over enforcement.
"Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD," according to the document. "Citizens of Vancouver involved in sex work are entitled to the same level of safety and protection under the law as are all residents of the city."
DJ Joe, director of SWUAV, has fought for the rights of sex workers in the Downtown Eastside for 14 years. She views the card and changes to policing as a step in the right direction.
"This card's important for these women to be safe out there and to make sure the police don't harass us girls anymore," Ms. Joe said.
Ms. Pacey said advocates and sex-worker organizations appealed to the VPD for months to get police to change how they interact with sex workers and to work toward fixing a relationship historically fraught with tensions.
"There has been little trust between sex workers and the police," Ms. Pacey said. "Sex workers have often been hesitant to call police if they were in trouble because of fear that they would be arrested or experience discrimination by police."
This viewpoint is shared by Commissioner Wally Opal who is leading the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance and death of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
He writes, "the relationship between police and sex trade workers is generally marked by distrust."
Ms. Pacey said that Pivot and SWUAV printed 2,000 cards and will continue to print more and distribute them throughout the Downtown Eastside as needed.
But the Downtown Eastside is only a starting point.
"As part of SWUAV and Pivot's efforts, we sent a dozen letters yesterday to RCMP and to police chiefs across the country in the major municipalities," Ms. Pacey says.
Both organizations hope similar policies will eventually catch on throughout the country.