Last summer, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (JUST) listened to witnesses from across the country on the potential harmful impacts the feds’ new prostitution laws would have on the lives of women.
Monica Forrester was among the few sex workers invited to speak to the committee, but she couldn’t attend because she was supporting a friend, also a sex worker, who had been arrested under the law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in December 2013 – the same law the Supreme Court gave the government one year to fix.
Justice Minister Peter Mackay said the resulting Protection Of Communities And Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), Bill C-36, was the government’s only option.
He went on to say that the bill “recognizes that victims of prostitution are many… they are vulnerable people” and that the “persons who sell their own sexual services are prostitution’s primary victims.” Yet the PCEPA enacts laws very similar to the ones that were struck down. Specifically, the PCEPA recriminalizes the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized involved in the sex trade, trans sex workers. The new law fails to address their lived reality.
Monica Forrester’s submission to the committee sheds light on that reality. “A lot of trans women like me, because they don’t have basic human rights, can’t find jobs,” she says.
While Canadian courts and human rights tribunal decisions state that trans people’s human rights are protected on the grounds of sex and/or disability, gender identity is not expressly listed as a prohibited grounds for discrimination. Trans people do not receive the full benefit of these decisions since most employers and many trans people are not aware of these protections. Trans persons can experience discrimination when applying for jobs and before or during transitioning at their current job.
A 2013 investigation by Trans PULSE, a community-based academic research group, reported that trans people in Ontario have high rates of unemployment, workplace discrimination and poverty. The report notes that these factors increase trans “participation in criminalized work to survive, which, combined with police profiling, produces high levels of criminalization.”
These higher rates are attributable not only to the economic stresses transgender people face finding jobs and adequate housing, but also to the high cost of the often uninsured medical procedures needed for their transition.
Trans people constitute the majority of sex workers in prison populations in Ontario.
Discrimination also occurs at the hands of police one-quarter of trans persons report police harassment because of their gender identity.
Sex work, as Forrester’s statement highlights, is a way for some women to have access to community.
The government’s new law will increase the dangers faced by trans sex workers in particular, since they tend to be overrepresented among street-level sex workers, the most dangerous form of sex work. Some 20 per cent of trangender women participate in sex work, double the rate of cisgender women, according to a June statement on Bill C-36 released by national LGBT human rights organization Egale Canada. That statement notes that the government’s new law is “silent about the realities of male and trans sex workers.”
Trans Equality Society of Alberta (TESA) noted that the bill “does not reflect any interest in keeping people in the sex work community safe, nor does it reflect any support for helping marginalized people remain out of sex work in the first place.”
During the Justice Committee hearings, Chanelle Gallant, a former staffer at Maggie’s: Toronto’s Sex Worker Action Project, said that the bill “will lead to beaten, raped and murdered sex workers and an increase in HIV and AIDS. We will consider this parliament partially responsible for those outcomes for the sex worker community.”
December 17 marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a day to honour sex workers’ lives lost due to violence. Gallant says, “We also remember to fight like hell for the living.”
Naomi Sayers is a sex work activist and founder of the sex workers rights group Southwestern Ontario Sex Workers. She is currently a common law student at the University of Ottawa.
Approximately 20% Transgender women who report participating in sex work in Canada, about twice the proportion of cisgender women.
One-quarter Trans people who report being harassed by police in Ontario because of their gender identity.
6% Trans people who report doing time in jail.
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