by Emily van der Meulen and Jessica Yee and Elya M. Durisin
Canada, like many countries around the world, has a long and ongoing history of colonialism1 and genocide of Indigenous peoples. One of the contemporary legacies of colonialism is racist and sexist discrimination against Indigenous peoples. This is particularly evident in the lives of Indigenous sex workers. While prostitution is technically not illegal in Canada, most of the activities associated with it are prohibited through the Criminal Code. Specifically, there are provisions that criminalise brothels, managers/owners/operators of sex establishments, communication among and between sex workers and clients, and even living on someone’s prostitution earnings.2 Together, the prostitution laws have been shown to effectively increase vulnerability, stigma, and violence.
Over the past three decades, violence against sex workers has dramatically increased across the country with numerous murders occurring in Niagara Falls, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Many of the sex workers who have been killed and who continue to suffer from violence at the hands of perpetrators and the state are Indigenous, or what is commonly referred to in Canada as Aboriginal, which includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Aboriginal people represent just over 3 percent of the total population.
Aboriginal sex workers are subject to dual discrimination as both sex workers and as Aboriginal people. One of the outcomes of discrimination is the high rate of HIV infection. In Ontario, Aboriginal women account for approximately 50 percent of all HIVpositive test reports among Aboriginal people, which is considerably higher than for women in general who account for approximately 25 percent of HIV-positive tests. This dual discrimination also works within the sex trade where Aboriginal women are more likely to be overrepresented in lower-paying and less safe sectors, such as street-based work. According to Maurganne Mooney, an Aboriginal woman and a former sex worker, it is less likely to find First Nations women working in massage parlours or other indoor locations.3 Mooney explains that these women aren’t given as many options in the sex trade.
Further, Aboriginal women are more likely to experience police brutality, racial profiling, and extreme violence, including murder. Over the past twenty years there have been over 580 missing and murdered Aboriginal women (both sex workers and nonsex workers) throughout Canada. Stereotypes about the sexual availability of Aboriginal girls and women continue to normalise this violence and facilitate a context in which these murders and disappearances are largely ignored.
Addressing Systemic Racism
In light of this contemporary context, violence-reduction and sex workpositive strategies, and outreach programmes that are culturally specific, lead by and for Indigenous people are particularly important.
However, the Western sex workers’ rights movement has largely neglected to build relationships and work in solidarity with Indigenous sex workers. Institutional and systemic racism within sex worker organisations is not adequately addressed, which can create unsafe and oppressive environments where Indigenous sex workers may not feel welcome to access services or report violence. Not surprisingly, then, conventional outreach strategies that do not take into account the structural factors that inform Indigenous sexworking realities have led to less than desirable results.
At Maggie’s, the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, we are addressing this lack of engagement and systemic racism by prioritising the development of a partnership with Aboriginal sex workers and organisations. Maggie’s is Canada’s oldest sex worker-run organisation; our mission is to assist sex workers in their efforts to live and work with safety and dignity. We are based in Toronto, Ontario, and are founded on the belief that in order to improve our circumstances, sex workers must control their own lives and destinies
Seeing a need to build solidarity with Aboriginal sex workers, we hired an Aboriginal sex worker in 2006 to start peer outreach specifically to her community. We recorded an 80 percent increase in contacts with street-based Aboriginal sex workers during that time. In response, we developed an Aboriginal-specific programme in partnership with the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy, which is also supported by the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. In 2008, we applied for and received funding to initiate the country’s first Aboriginal-specific sex work and HIV programme. This project, called the Aboriginal Sex WorkersEducation and Outreach Project (ASWEOP), is responsive to the needs of Aboriginal street-based sex workers. As such, it operates from a culturally competent and harm reduction framework. An Aboriginal Advisory Committee made up of Aboriginal sex workers, Aboriginal HIV/AIDS and harm reduction community leaders, and an Elder guides the programme and supports the activities of a Project Coordinator and two part-time Peer Outreach Workers.
Specific activities of ASWEOP include: preparation and distribution of safer sex kits; peer outreach to Aboriginal sex workers on the street, in bars, in court, in drop-ins and other venues; distribution of safer sex information in a culturally appropriate and accessible manner; the development of a resource/ health and safety tip booklet; and joining Maggie’s in a December 17th event.
Partnering with Anti-Violence Programmes
ASWEOP works to increase HIV prevention knowledge and decrease social isolation for Aboriginal women working in the street sex trade. The project aims to serve as a model to other organisations working with Aboriginal sex workers by understanding the colonising nature and feminisation of violence towards Aboriginal women. ASWEOP has been in duration for just over a year, and is still in the early stages of designing and implementing specific activities that respond to the high incidence of violence that Aboriginal women experience. Over the next two years, we will develop programming for Aboriginal sex workers that prioritises the historical and systemic roots of violence against Aboriginal people but does not simultaneously harm the agency and self-determination of Aboriginal people engaged in sex work.
In addition to outreach, providing culturally relevant spaces, and hosting awareness-raising events throughout the city of Toronto, ASWEOP is currently collaborating with other
Aboriginal organisations in the province of Ontario whose mandate is to work on violence against Aboriginal people, but previously did not include service delivery that is responsive to the realities of Aboriginal sex workers. We have found so far that the training and knowledge base we are providing is not only long overdue, but is in fact creating concrete opportunities for violence prevention programmes to restructure themselves in a way that is respectful to Aboriginal sex workers. ASWEOP will work in partnership with these organisations towards a more community-driven, multifaceted response that is by and for Aboriginal people.
Maggie’s recognises that violence and patriarchy have long been used as tools to subjugate, disempower and undermine women’s autonomy over our own bodies. Also, racism and colonialism have been effective in oppressing and marginalising Indigenous peoples. Responses to violence against Indigenous sex workers, then, must be aware of these histories and, as such, should be led by Indigenous people themselves. Further, such responses must be aware of the recolonising effect of so-called ‘helping’ Indigenous people and ‘rescuing’ sex workers. Most importantly, non- Indigenous peoples and organizations must respect and learn from the many ways in which Indigenous communities have already been and continue to work to end violence.
About the Authors
Emily van der Meulen, Jessica Yee & Elya M. Durisin are sex workers and allies who are board members at Maggie’s, the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project.
1 Colonialism in the Canadian context entails a series of oppressive political, economic, and social transformations to Indigenous nations, resulting in geographic dislocation, cultural genocide, and extreme violence towards Indigenous peoples.
2 In September 2010 the Ontario Superior Court ruled that sections of the Criminal Code of Canada violate sex workers’ rights to freedom of expression and security of the person. If actualised, this ruling will decriminalise activities associated with sex work, including keeping a bawdyhouse and communicating. At the time of printing, the federal government was in the process of appealing the decision.
3 Yee, J. (2009). Supporting Aboriginal Sex Workers Struggles. Canadian Dimension,
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