Courting death: (Part 2)

The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas and into dark alleys, making them easy prey for murderers.

Dan Gardner
The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, June 15, 2002

(Continued from previous page)

It may be difficult to imagine that the criminal law itself shares responsibility for Vancouver's infamous pig farm or other such horrors. But when Mr. Lowman's data on slayings of Vancouver prostitutes is put together with developments in law enforcement over the last several decades, an eerie picture emerges.

Before the late 1960s, there was lots of prostitution in Vancouver, but it was almost entirely off-street. Char LaFontaine, who first worked as a prostitute in the downtown east side in 1968, says "women used to work out of the bars and clubs."

Mr. Lowman was unable to find any record of prostitute murders during that era.

In the early 1970s, street prostitution began to rise in Vancouver, along with cities across the developed world, in part because of larger social trends, including demographics and rising personal-car ownership.

In 1975, Vancouver police shut down the city's main massage parlours and other off-street prostitution venues. In 1977, Toronto did the same. Street prostitution grew rapidly.

The first recorded murder of a prostitute in Vancouver occurred in 1975. By 1979, two more murders had been committed.

In 1978 the Supreme Court ruled that, for a soliciting charge to stick, the solicitation had to be "pressing and persistent." Police officers felt this made the law almost impossible to enforce on the street. As a result, while charges against off-street prostitution continued to be high, solicitation charges against street prostitutes plunged from 1,653 in 1976 to 598 in 1979 and 55 in 1984. Street prostitution flourished. Authorities tried different methods of control, including civil injunctions that barred hookers from specified neighbourhoods.

From 1980 to 1984, there were eight murders of prostitutes in Vancouver.

In 1985, the federal government ignored a parliamentary committee that called for regulations setting out where and how prostitutes could legally conduct what is, in theory, a legal act and, instead, passed the current "communication" law. This forbids any form of public communication to arrange prostitution under any circumstances, a more sweeping ban than the old solicitation law. The police enforced the new law vigorously, laying almost 10,000 on-street charges per year nationwide from 1987 through the early 1990s. In 1990, a parliamentary report declared that the new law and the crackdowns had failed to reduce street prostitution; the only lasting effect was to push hookers from one place to another.

Also in the mid-1980s, police in Vancouver and other cities shut down cheap hotels that had been renting rooms by the hour or half-hour. It had been "a real thriving business," says Char LaFontaine. "And women were safe. You could be in a hotel room with a trick and, if you were in danger, scream out and chances are somebody would kick your door in." Ms. LaFontaine speaks from experience. A hotel deskman once saved her from a violent john.

The end of the hotel sex trade meant prostitutes not only met johns in residential neighbourhoods, they started having sex with them in parked cars. "That's the norm now," says Ms. Lafontaine. "It wasn't the norm before. Women didn't get in cars."

With hookers turning tricks in cars, the trade inflicted even more blight on residential neighbourhoods. Across the country, citizens' groups formed and demanded a crackdown. The reaction was strongest in Vancouver, as residents used foot patrols, garden hoses and bullhorns to drive women away. Signs were posted warning of unspecified "consequences" for prostitutes who dared stick around. And always the language was brutal and unsympathetic. "Get rid of them" was the constant refrain in what John Lowman calls the "discourse of disposal."

In 1988, with the prostitution laws being enforced more strenuously than ever, and hookers even more marginalized, Vancouver's current downtown-east-side stroll formed. Women began to walk those dark streets, alone.

From 1985 to 1989, 22 prostitutes were murdered in Vancouver. From 1990 to 1994, there were 24 murders. Since then, another 50 or 60 women have likely been murdered.

In 1998, the intergovernmental working group report declared the current law a failure: "Despite a series of Criminal Code amendments over the past 25 years, the Working Group received compelling evidence that the existing law is not working."

But when it came to recommending changes, the group's unanimity fell apart. Many ideas were raised but the group failed to agree on any serious reforms.

For Mr. Lowman, that's unacceptable. The status quo is killing women, he believes, and that won't change no matter what the police find at Robert Pickton's pig farm. "If they don't fix the law, if they don't start doing all sorts of things which involve the conditions which get certain kinds of people into prostitution, we're just going to be waiting for another one of these to happen again."

Change can come from just two sources: Parliament or the courts.

Libby Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver's downtown east side, has voiced doubts about the law in the Commons. "One of my big questions is, who are we actually helping? I don't see that we're really helping anybody. If anything, the situation is deteriorating," she says. Ms. Davies wants a parliamentary committee to review the prostitution laws and their effect on the safety of women.

She's not likely to get it, judging by John Lowman's experience. "In 1997, when we were only just starting to realize what was happening with these missing women," Mr. Lowman says, "I wrote two letters to (then-justice minister) Anne McLellan, sent her copies of all the research and the results that we've been getting. I never got a response."

The Citizen requested an interview with Martin Cauchon, the federal justice minister, to discuss the prostitution laws. The minister's office did not respond.

If the politicians won't act, judges may. In 1990, the Supreme Court reviewed the communication and bawdy-house laws in light of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and found them constitutional. But the current chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, has stated that, as society changes, charter decisions must change with it. That includes revisiting settled issues.

Much has changed since the Supreme Court upheld the prostitution laws in 1990. For one, there is far greater awareness that street prostitutes are themselves victims whose safety must be a priority.

There are also three new pieces of evidence that were not available in the court's earlier decision. One is Mr. Lowman's analysis of prostitute slayings in Vancouver. The second is a 1990 Justice Department study that found the communication law did not control the social nuisance of street prostitution. The third is the 1998 intergovernmental working group report that declared the prostitution laws a comprehensive failure.

The 1998 report even speculated that the findings of the 1990 study alone might change the Supreme Court's decision. Given all this, it may be that some or all of the prostitution laws could not survive another charter challenge.

But all that is for another day. For now, the stings, sweeps and arrests will go on. And so will the bloodshed.

It's natural to want to push it away mentally. The downtown east side, the missing women, the mass murder: It's all horrible, but it's Vancouver's horror, not ours.

In the downtown east side, I spoke to a prostitute who has seen and experienced almost every cruelty Vancouver's streets can inflict. I told her people in other provinces might think this isn't their problem. What do the 54 missing women have to do with the rest of Canada? I asked.

She shook her head and laughed bitterly.

She told me she is originally from Halifax. Then she told me about prostitutes murdered in that city. "My friend for eight years, she was found with her head almost cut off in a dumpster," she says. Two others "were stabbed to death and found on top of each other with semen all over them. They were my best friends. I was in juvi (juvenile detention) with them."

Two decades of living and working on the streets have left her pale and thin. Her arms are track-marked, her face gaunt. Her bloodshot eyes tear up. "They're all dead now," she said.

Contact Dan Gardner at 

 Copyright  2002 The Ottawa Citizen

The Ottawa Citizen 

an information site of the missing 54 women

Courting death: Part 1
  The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas and into dark alleys, making them easy prey for murderers-June 15, 2002

The hidden world of hookers (Part 1 and 2)-June 8, 2002

Part 4
How cities 'license' off-street hookers-June 16, 2002



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