At 5:30 on Tuesday evening, just over 100 people gathered on the front steps of Vancouver City Hall to demand Mayor Gregor Robertson follow through on his commitments to women and girls. The event, organized by Creating John-Free Communities, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, and REED, was clear in its aims: Make Vancouver a john-free zone.
In 2009, Robertson signed a declaration naming prostitution as violence against women. Just last year, he signed a second declaration, committing to end “abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of modern slavery, which are crimes against humanity, including forced labor and prostitution.” Today, the Mayor has a real opportunity to keep his word, and to follow through on his promises.
In 2014, Bill C-36: The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act passed, and, under Canada’s new law, paying for sex became illegal. While a number of other cities and provinces have taken action in accordance with the new law, cracking down on pimps and johns, the Vancouver Police Department, under the guidance of the Mayor (who acts as Chair of the Vancouver Police Board, the body that employs and oversees the Vancouver Police Department), have opted to simply ignore the law, stating they will only enforce it as a “last resort.” Instead, the VPD is following a 2013 policy that does not hold men accountable for the violence, exploitation, and abuse they perpetrate when they pay for sex, that relies on misguided and decontextualized words like “choice” and “consent.” This language and approach wholly abandons marginalized women who end up in prostitution through a lack of choice and ignores the fact that “consent” given under duress, by women who are impoverished, addicted, abused, coerced, and groomed through incest and other forms of sexual abuse, does not exist in any meaningful sense of the word. The City continues to issue licenses to the “massage parlours” that exist throughout Vancouver, who profit through the racist fetishization of Asian women, and continues to let men operate with impunity in the Downtown Eastside and beyond.
Since the new law came into effect, women’s groups have urged Robertson to take action. On May 5th, feminist activist Jindi Mehat addressed the Police Board, saying, “Prostituted women are most harmed by the decision to not arrest johns,” but that as a resident of Vancouver, “this decision [to ignore the law] harms all women.” She also pointed out to the Mayor and the Board that holding men accountable means addressing men’s beliefs about entitlement to women’s bodies, exemplified through sexual harassment and assault, as well as through buying sex. In other words, prostitution exists as part of a larger continuum that reinforces rape culture and sends the message that women’s humanity matters less than male pleasure.
Last night, women and men alike demanded more from our government. Indigenous feminist and survivor of prostitution, Jackie Lynne, reminded the Mayor, “You have the power to make the lives of Indigenous women and girls better.” Fay Blaney, founder of Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), echoed these sentiments, pointing out that the very same Indigenous women and girls who go missing in Canada are also the one forced into prostitution on the streets of Vancouver. Indigenous activist, Audrey Siegel, questioned the Mayor’s priorities, shouting, “No more bike lanes till our women are safe!”
As the rally wrapped up, attendees signed letters addressed to the Mayor, demanding he take leadership and use the law to protect women.
A smaller group headed into the building to address Robertson directly, handing him the signed letters in person. Siegel reminded him of his position of privilege, as a white man, and his responsibility towards the Indigenous women whose land and culture was stolen and erased through colonialism, whose bodies are being abused and exploited by white men now, in a continuation of this colonialist legacy. Despite the numerous women who spoke directly to him, demanding action, asking, “How many more women have to die?” Robertson abdicated responsibility, once again.
While the City rests on its laurels, claiming “harm-reduction” as the go-to “progressive” solution to systemic oppression, women like Lynne want more, saying, “We don’t want harm-reduction we want harm-elimination!”
“Every woman standing here represents 1000 more,” Siegel said. How long will the Mayor continue to ignore our voices, our rights, and our fight for justice and respect?