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Carmen, left, and Emily, centre, take part in a tax workshop for sex workers with PACE Society community educator Caroline Doerksen in Vancouver on March 1.Jackie Dives

In her first year of doing sex work, Hailey Heartless made an effort to pay her taxes, but admits she had no idea what she was doing. Ms. Heartless, a dominatrix, didn't keep detailed records and she wasn't sure what she could expense. She also wondered if her information could be shared with the police.

Such concerns are common for people such as Ms. Heartless, who find themselves in the difficult position of wanting to be above board with their finances, but have concerns given the nature of their work. Sex work is legal in Canada but its procurement is not, creating uncertain conditions that can push workers underground.

Staff at PACE Society, a sex-worker resource organization based in Vancouver, heard these concerns from clients and organized a tax workshop to help answer their questions. Late last week, Ms. Heartless joined a handful of others at PACE's office for an information session with a chartered accountant – the second such workshop the organization has put on.

"Paying taxes is important because the government seems to go after people it doesn't like through the fact that they don't pay taxes," Ms. Heartless said. "The government, their stance on sex workers can vary a lot: sometimes they like us and sometimes they don't. I'm out as a sex worker rights activist and if I get on somebody's bad side, I don't want to be in trouble with the tax man."

Over two hours, clients asked questions such as how to prove income, whether rent can be claimed as an expense if one works from home and if filing could create future problems when, say, crossing the border. (The answers, respectively: document expenses and revenues; yes, but only about 25 per cent of rent; and no, as privacy laws protect tax information from being shared with outsiders such as border agents.)

The group was informed that filing taxes, a legal obligation, comes with benefits such as contributions to the Canada Pension Plan. They also learned that the Canada Revenue Agency has a tax code for escorts: 812900, the same one used for psychics, party planners and personal shoppers.

Caroline Doerksen, a PACE community educator, said the workshop provides a safe space for sex workers to ask questions candidly without fear of judgment they might otherwise receive at a typical tax-preparation service.

"It can be really scary for folks to have these kinds of conversations," Ms. Doerksen said. "There are a lot of things that [they] have questions about but, because of the stigma, we don't want to talk about. It's not as simple as going up to someone and being like, 'Hey, please help me.'"

PACE executive director Laura Dilly said the workshops not only benefit the individuals but help legitimize a highly stigmatized line of work.

"Sex workers work, but there are hardly any services or platforms where sex workers are recognized as that," Ms. Dilly said. "Being able to come to this workshop and file your taxes is just one way to ease the burden off sex workers … This way, it relieves some anxiety: [They can say] 'I've paid my taxes and I'm in good standing.'"

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