Red umbrellas – a symbol for sex workers’ rights – were seen scattered across Place de la Paix in Montreal this past Saturday, but not because of the rain.
Around 80 sex workers and allies gathered at the park at 2 p.m. as part of a national series of demonstrations in recognition of sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of sex workers. The demonstrators celebrated their cause with sparklers, music, and dance.
The demonstration was organized by multiple groups, including Stella; Projet Travailleuses du sexe, Émiss-ère; Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transsexuel(le)s du Québec; l’Alliance Féministe Solidaire pour les droits des travailleuses et travailleurs du sexe; Pink Bloc; and PolitiQ.
The family friendly event opened with rallying speeches given by representatives from different organizing groups, followed by a dance-a-thon. A speaker system blasted dance music as demonstrators broke out into song and lit sparklers. The demonstration dissolved naturally by 3:45 p.m.
The action was organized the same weekend as the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada racing event in Montreal, further pushing the safety of sex workers to the forefront of people’s minds. With the influx of Grand Prix attendees each year, Montreal sex workers see a rise in clients.
In addition, the upcoming Bedford v. Canada case has made the issue very relevant. The Supreme Court of Canada will hear the case on the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws brought forth by Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott, who claim Canada’s prostitution laws are unconstitutional as they infringe on the rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter. Their claim was upheld by an Ontario judge in 2010 before being appealed by the federal government and brought before the Supreme Court.
“We are talking about people’s lives right now,” explains Anna-Aude Caouette, Clinical Coordinator of Stella, a community-based sex worker justice group. “This case is about people’s right to security and life. We are in support of that.”
As laws governing prostitution stand now, the act of prostitution is itself not illegal, however many of the acts around it are, such as communication for the purpose of prostitution in any place open to public view. This means that sex workers have limited options for communicating and coordinating with clients, which can contribute to the lack of security sex workers may face on the job.
Article 213 of the Criminal Code of Canada details the restrictions of prostitution practices, limiting solicitation in ‘public places’ and by way of stopped motorized vehicles. In addition, sex workers may not receive clients in the same place more than once.
“The Criminal Code 213 of Canada criminalizes both the clients and the sex workers,” Caouette explained. “With this article, we cannot communicate what we are going to offer, how much it will cost, and safer sex negotiations. We are more vulnerable to aggressors or bad clients, and even [the] police sometimes.”
“We cannot organize with sex workers to improve our security,” she added, “None of this is possible in the legal context of Canada. It forces us to be very vulnerable.”
The Supreme Court of Canada will begin to hear the case on June 13. Demonstrators hope that the Supreme Court will strike down three major criminal provisions that criminalize sex workers. Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute was granted official intervener status in the Supreme Court case.