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'Red Light' Idea Glows Brighter in Vancouver

Changed prostitution laws, maybe a red light district, suddenly a hot issue.

Scott Deveau 28 Feb
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In the recent season finale of Da Vinci's Inquest, Larry Campbell…er, Dominic Da Vinci announced his mayoral candidacy and at the same time proposed a red light district to address the prostitution issue in his city.

A politically loaded idea relegated to realm of fiction. Or is it?

Last month, the Friends of Larry, a group supporting Mayor Campbell's reelection campaign, was polling public support for a red light district in Vancouver.  A red light district is an area specifically zoned to allow prostitution to be run out of businesses and Vancouver hasn't had one since the late 30s. Under current federal legislation, a red light district would run contrary solicitation and bawdy house laws.

The Friends of Larry poll comes at a time when a five-member federal judicial sub-committee is taking testimonies and touring the country reviewing Canada's solicitation laws. Vancouver East MP Libby Davies is the vice-chair of the committee which will be in Vancouver at the end of March.

Vancouver will certainly have a lot to say about the issue. Representatives from PACE, WISH, and PIVOT legal society have long fought to amend the solicitation laws and are currently contributing to a new committee of community-based organizations funded by the Vancouver Agreement to develop a municipal strategy to address the sex trade in a similar manner to the city's four pillars approach to the drug problem.  The idea is to tackle issues of poverty, mental illness, and addiction associated with the sex trade.

Finally, the city announced last week its intention to hire an advocate for prostitution and homelessness issues.

With all these initiatives in sync, Vancouver is poised to address the dangers of street-based prostitution -- dangers thrown into harsh light by the alleged Pickton murders that claimed the lives of more than 60 women in the Downtown Eastside.

But it's unclear what options the city really has at its disposal.  Prostitution itself is not illegal under the Criminal Code, but current communication and bawdy house laws prohibit civically implemented red light districts or bawdy houses. Critics say these laws force prostitutes onto the streets and into making split-second decisions that are endangering their lives.

Sex trade zoning didn't fly

In September 2003, Vancouver city council felt a political backlash against the idea of imposing red light districts. 

While the mayor and three other councilors were out of town, the remaining council voted to allow prostitutes to sell sex from their homes.  By amending the city's zoning definition of home-based businesses, the council thought they could side-step public input and vote to allow the sex-trade to operate from prostitutes' homes. To not include the sex trade in home-based businesses would discriminate against sex-trade workers, according to Coun. Anne Roberts at the time.

The idea was not entirely unheard of.  In Britian, similar legislation has proven somewhat successful by limiting the number of prostitutes that can legally operate out of a home to one or two. Still, Vancouver city council blindsiding the public didn't sit well.

Coun. Ellen Woodsworth argued the amendment, which ran contrary to the Criminal Code, was brought in to protect prostitutes working the streets of the Downtown Eastside. Public outrage ensued. City council backed off the amendments, and when the mayor returned he promised to address the issue properly.  A red light district, the mayor said, was not a quick fix. But Campbell has yet to offer any other solution.

Woodsworth, who was in Ottawa this week at the judicial subcommittee hearings, said the reason the amendment received such a negative response was because there wasn't enough information given to the public about the inherent dangers in street-based prostitution.

Another run at it?

Woodsworth told The Tyee she supports decriminalizing solicitation and still believes allowing prostitutes to work from their homes would decrease the risk of harm and take the sex industry out of the hands of organized crime. Eighty per cent of the prostitution in Vancouver is run out of massage parlors and escort services already, Woodsworth said.

"Nothing would change.  It would be the same as it is now.  The difference would be you wouldn't have the middle man who is taking the money from the people who are performing the business," Woodsworth said. "The sex trade workers like the ones that vanished at the Pickton farm, had they a place to go, probably wouldn't have died. If you legalize it, you don't have all the dangers associated with it. It makes it overt instead of covert.  Everybody since the Pickton trial has realized how dangerous it is to have the poorest of the poor working the streets in this trade."

If the council's COPE majority members do pursue new harm reductions strategies for street based prostitution, they likely will find an ally in Coun. Sam Sullivan of the NPA.

Councillor Sullivan's heroin trial

Several years ago, Coun. Sam Sullivan ran his own personal harm reduction strategy in his Collingwood neighbourhood. For a brief period, Sullivan supplied a street prostitute working in front of a convenience store in his Collingwood neighbourhood with $40 a day to buy heroin so that she could function without turning tricks.

Sullivan said he approached several wealthy Vancouverites to participate in similar programs at the time and although he managed to convince a few, Sullivan stopped giving the woman money after just three weeks.

"I got a little resentful that the money I was paying, the great majority of the money, was supporting organized crime," Sullivan said.  He also came to the conclusion that he was going about it the wrong way when he was trying to figure out ways of importing drugs without any of the money going to organized crime, he said.

"A lot of these people have drug problems, and they are demeaning themselves because they need more drugs," Sullivan said.

"I think it's disgraceful how little this council has done to deal with the issue of the missing women and all the prostitution in the city," Sullivan said, who added the safe-injection site and the free heroin trials were in the works well before the current council took office. "The only thing (this council has) done is the East Side crackdown."

Brief history of sex for sale

Vancouver has been trying to address the issue of prostitution since the city's first madam, Birdie Stewart, set up shop in 1873.  Bolstered by Asian sex slaves, the city's last official red-light districts was on Dupont Street, which is now West Pender between Cambie and Main, until it was finally broken up in the late 1930's. 

Shutting down the district simply spread the trade into the city's hotels and beer parlors. The sex trade operated in this manner, with the addition of call girl services in the 1950's, until 1975 when Vancouver's most notorious house of debauchery, the Penthouse, was raided by the Vancouver police. Somewhere between 30 to 150 prostitutes worked the Penthouse each night and when the cops finally busted it, the prostitutes took to the streets of the West End and since then, have been shuffled around to various de facto strolls.

Former Vancouver city councilor Gordon Price made his political name spearheading the "Shame the Johns" campaign in the West End that dispersed the trade into other areas of the city.

Price said the city won't be able to tackle the sex trade issue until it deals with the issue of morality surrounding it.  Until the citizenry decides whether prostitution should be allowed to exist in the city, it won't be able to do anything about the prostitution issue, he said.

"We made it quite clear that the issue was not about prostitution, but about who had the right to live peacefully in the community. As much as there is a rather naive notion it's live and let live and prostitution can have a street presence in a neighborhood, I don't know anyone that has pulled that off," Price said.

Mulroney era law said to increase danger

Libby Davies has been working for years to get prostitution off the streets as a harm-reduction strategy. The justice sub-committee she is vice-chairs has already heard from a number of groups who have in interest in the Canadian sex trade, including Paul Fraser, a lawyer and chair of the special committee on pornography and prostitution. Fraser presented a similar review of the country's solicitation laws in 1985.

Among his many suggestions, Fraser recommended amending the bawdy house laws to get prostitutes off the street. And while Fraser said his report led to some successes, particularly around juveniles, there were also "some very considerable failures," he told the subcommittee earlier this month resulting

"They largely centred around the recommendations that were made with respect to bawdy houses and with respect to procuring."

One of the unintended fallouts from the Fraser commission was the Mulroney government implementing legislation that made it illegal to communicate for the purposes of selling sex. Davies argues this law is making the street sex trade very dangerous because it forces women to make split-second decisions on whether they should get in the car with someone.

The subcommittee is not only hearing from advocates for decriminalization.  It is also hearing from many prohibitionists, and one of its five members, Calgary Northeast Conservative MP Art Hanger, a former Calgary detective, is very much on the side of prohibition, Davies said. Davies says she wants an "an objective evaluation" of how to improve the lives of sex trade workers while taking into account "impacts to the community."

Whose neighbourhood?

"The sex trade exists, it's very high risk, people are being harmed, and placed in incredibly dangerous situations," Davies says.

But she makes it clear that decriminalizing the sex trade is not the same thing as allowing red light districts, given that "when you start at that point, you immediately think where is the red light district going to go?  It all comes down to that one question, the red light district. I want to back away from that."

Davies is a good student of history. Back in the early 1980s, the NDP's Svend Robinson pushed for a red light district. He was asked by his television interviewer, Jack Webster, whether it was going to be in his neighbourhood or Robinson's.  Robinson evaded the question and Webster turned his back on the MP and crossed his arms. End of the red light debate.

Scott Deveau is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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