Who is Listening? Remembering Indigenous Sex Workers
By Naomi Sayers
As I sit here drafting this, I am wondering what can I write that I haven’t already written, or that other people haven’t already stated elsewhere? There isn’t much more that I can say, or that we can say collectively. It is now 25 years since the first march in Vancouver’s downtown east side called for action to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. And now, 25 years later, we still march, we still write, we still shout…who is listening?
In the past couple of years, media coverage of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (#MMIWG) has increased and there has also been social media campaigns bringing the issue to increased audiences. For many Canadians, the last few years may have been the first time they heard or read about this issue. This might be considered progress by some. But for many families, the fight to be heard and listened to is an ongoing battle against colonial desires to erase Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples. Our current Prime Minister summed up his government’s stance on #MMIWG when he stated in December that it wasn’t “really high on our radar, to be honest.” This moment of honesty is a denial of the ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women, which is part of a larger trend of the Prime Minister denying colonialism existed in Canada at all. Indigenous women and girls continue to go missing or are murdered; they do not matter to him. There is no colonial past or present. So, we continue to write, to march, to shout, and to assert our presence and our demands.
It is difficult to see the realities of gendered colonial violence ignored and erased from the political realm. It is even more difficult to see these violences further entrenched through increased criminalization. This increased criminalization is most evident with the erasure of Indigenous women’s realities and voices, ignored when the current government’s passed the new prostitution laws. In the midst of unprecedented attention to #MMIWG, colonial violence against Indigenous women becomes further normalized and entrenched through law.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruled three criminal code provisions that criminalized prostitution as unconstitutional—these provisions violated sex workers’ right to life, liberty and security of person. The most obvious example of how these laws negatively impacted sex workers’ lives is the horror of Robert Pickton. Canadians of all backgrounds know about Pickton, but some Canadians are less aware of John Martin Crawford. Crawford preyed specifically on Indigenous women who worked the streets.
Street based sex workers rely on different screening methods for their own safety and protection. One such method is communicating with a potential client about services and screening for safety, which also includes examining the car before entering. However, when communication between a potential client and an outdoor sex work is criminalized, the sex worker is forced to make hasty decisions that could ultimately force them into violent and dangerous scenarios. In its decision, the SCC stated, “if screening could have prevented one woman from jumping into Robert Pickton’s car, the severity of the harmful effects is established.” It cannot be stated enough, but predators who prey on outdoor sex workers, and specifically Indigenous sex workers, are aware of the precarious and vulnerable position outdoor sex workers are placed in.
Sadly, the government, in response to the SCC decision, enacted extremely broad and ill-defined laws that will continue to regulate and criminalize outdoor sex workers under a very similar law that contributed to predators like Crawford and Pickton preying on outdoor sex workers, who are predominantly Indigenous women. When the government says that Indigenous women are made vulnerable by being forced to enter into prostitution, they emphatically ignore the complexities of their lives and most certainly, they ignore the history of colonialism. The government’s solution to these complex social issues doesn’t respond to Indigenous sex workers’ unique needs; rather, the government contributes to their vulnerability by forcing them to work under dangerous laws—laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional and that continue to ignore the realities of Indigenous sex workers.
When the government ignores these histories and present realities, it sends a clear message to Canadians: sex workers’ lives do not matter. The law continues to criminalize outdoor sex workers and will continue to put the most marginalized and vulnerable in harm’s way. Predators like Pickton and Crawford will continue to prey on women who work outdoors and who come from Indigenous backgrounds. We need to stand together to support those who continue to do sex work and those who continue to do sex work under dangerous laws. We need to acknowledge their realities and we need to acknowledge their resistance and resiliency.
At the end of the day, we can continue to take these issues to the streets, to march and to shout. But if we aren’t listening to the Indigenous women that live and work on the streets, what does that tell them? It tells them that we are not valuing their truths. If not us, who is going to listen to them? We cannot rely on the government to listen.
During this time, I ask that people not forget about current sex workers when they are praying, remembering, and marching for the missing and murdered. There are Indigenous women who continue to work in the sex trade; we must not forget about them because their realities and truths are important too. We must acknowledge the history of this march and the resistance that it grew out of, including resistance to the state and resistance to the ongoing criminalization of Indigenous sex workers’ lives. We can’t wait for another Pickton or Crawford to prey on our daughters, mothers, or sisters.
Naomi Sayers is the creator of www.kwetoday.com, and identifies as an indigenous feminist, sex work activist. She is currently enrolled in the common law program at the University of Ottawa.