Although selling of sex is legal in Canada, virtually every related activity is criminalized making it unsafe and jeopardizing health and safety of sex workers, not to mention the violation of their human rights. SWAN Vancouver Society has been working to provide culturally appropriate and language-specific support, education, research, advocacy, and outreach for immigrant, migrant, newcomer and trafficked indoor sex workers.  Alison Clancey explained SWAN’s works and experiences.

You have taken up the Coordinator’s position since August last year but have been involved with SWAN for a long period. Can you tell us about the work of SWAN and how it has evolved over the year(s)?

In 2002, we began providing outreach to women working in massage parlors as part of a pilot project in a non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization that researched sex workers’ access to healthcare and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. During the project, we recognized that the issues the women were dealing with were much broader than HIV and sexual health. The concerns that were most important were immigration, criminal matters relating to prostitution laws and exiting sex work. At the end of the project, we recognized how important it was to continue outreach and SWAN was established.

Our outreach program over the years has provided newcomer, migrant, immigrant and trafficked women engaged in indoor sex work with safer sex supplies; information and referrals to health, social, employment and legal services; and individual and systemic advocacy. We publish SWANzine (SWAN’s newsletter) three times a year to answer questions that arise during outreach, provide community information and resources and update changes to laws and policies that affect indoor sex work.

A key part of SWAN’s work is bringing forward the opinions of racialized women who engage in indoor sex work into public policy. In the past year, SWAN has been involved in policy change at the municipal level by expanding understandings of sex work, and in doing so the dialogue has become more inclusive of the complexity and diversity of the women we support. To provide context to the reforms to sex work policy and approaches currently being undertaken, the 1990s and early 2000s saw the serial murder of a number of street-based survival sex workers in Vancouver. Realizing this tragedy can never occur in our city again, a number of stakeholders including sex workers, sex work support organizations, provincial and municipal governments, law enforcement and community organizations among others have come together to develop and implement strategies that will make Vancouver a safer and healthier city for sex workers. While Canada’s prostitution laws are legislated at the federal level (currently these laws are being challenged at Canada’s highest court for being unconstitutional), there are a number of policy changes that can be made at the municipal level to provide safer work spaces and increased access to community information, resources and supports. SWAN is pleased to be part of this progressive change in the City of Vancouver.

The Vancouver Police Department recently released the Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines 2013. How do you see the impact of the guidelines in the daily lives of sex workers?

As part of the progressive change taking place in Vancouver, in 2013 the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) released a new sex work policy, Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines. The policy represents an important shift away from criminalizing sex workers towards ensuring sex workers have access to police protection. The policy states that the VPD’s priority is to ensure the safety and security of sex workers, and all cases of violence or abuse of sex workers will be treated as serious criminal matters. The policy also states the police should not harass, target, arrest or intimidate sex workers for doing sex work.

SWAN is encouraged by and commends the efforts of the VPD who worked collaboratively with sex workers to develop and implement this ground breaking policy which can serve as a national and international model.

However, we remain cautious. The VPD was mandated by the provincial Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry (which examined law enforcement’s failure to investigate the cases of the missing and murdered sex workers) to undergo anti-oppression training with a focus on sex work. To date this has not occurred.  In the absence of such training that will ensure meaningful changes in terms of sex work-related policing practices and philosophy, the sex workers we support have not yet reported improvements in their interactions with police. It is our hope that given time, relationships between sex workers and the police will be built and an environment will exist wherein sex workers will be able to report violence and victimization and their reports will be treated in an equitable manner to other members of society.

The USTIP report 2013 has put Canada on Tier 1 list meaning Canada meets the minimum standards established by law to combat trafficking. What is your take on it?

The USTIP Report does not reflect the realities we see on the ground as a community-based organization with over a decade of experience supporting sex workers and women who are trafficked.  According to the report, “foreign women, primarily from Asia and Eastern Europe, are subjected to sex trafficking as well, often in brothels and massage parlors”.  In the past few years, we have not encountered any trafficked women working in massage parlors.

While officially Canada may be meeting the minimum standards, it is our view that anti-trafficking mechanisms, in particular anti-trafficking funding, are not always evidence-based but are rather informed by discourse reproduced in publications such as the USTIP report. Our experience has shown that local organizations claiming to work on trafficking issues are often anti-sex work, conflating trafficking for sex work. It is also our experience that these organizations tend to get the most funding to support their “anti-trafficking programs.”

In the current environment, what are the major demands of migrant sex workers in Canada?

The most frequent request we get is to connect women to respectful health care providers. Occupational stigma affects the quality of services migrant sex workers receive in mainstream health care. Oftentimes there are also language barriers. To overcome these barriers to health access, SWAN connects women to our network of health care providers who understand sex work among im/migrant women and who we know offer non-judgmental health supports and services.