Published on: February 4, 2016 | Last Updated: February 4, 2016 3:25 PM EST
When it comes to the Liberal government’s consultations on missing and murdered Indigenous women, nobody is asking the question that seems obvious to me, as an Indigenous woman with experience selling and trading sex: What about laws that endanger sex workers?
While an inquiry may be part of the solution to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, it will be limited in terms of finding justice for all missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks. The way inquiries are shaped and carried out, and because they are neither criminal investigations nor do they have formal legal consequences, leave me feeling guarded about the outcome.
We can agree that when it comes to missing and murdered Indigenous women that we need to examine policing practices, and many other facets of society, but we also need to look at the impact of criminal laws, especially for Indigenous women in the sex trade.
Bill C-36, legislation introduced by the Conservative government in an effort to end exploitation and violence against women, sustains many of the same structures that endanger sex workers which were struck down in the Bedford Supreme Court ruling. This is a crucial point, because any inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women cannot ignore the people who continue to work in the sex trade and the harms created through the criminalization of sex work.
As some Indigenous women leave their communities in hope of better opportunities, some do enter the sex trade. We can debate the merits of their choice. But these debates ignore how their lives are criminalized — and how criminalization affects their safety.
And, efforts meant to fight human trafficking often call more violence into sex workers’ lives.
As police chiefs highlight their initiatives to target clients, they also note they are pushing some of the most marginalized sex workers — such as Indigenous women — off the street or state that they are seeing fewer street-based workers on the street. However, we know that seeing or having fewer sex workers on the street does not mean that they are safer.
You have to wonder who police are helping when you hear about sex workers being surveilled, harassed and threatened with deportation because of human trafficking initiatives.
Supporters of C-36 contend that the Swedish regime is the only answer to fight against trafficking and to end violence against women and girls, especially Indigenous women and girls.
Yet, the Swedish regime and its supporters ignore, in the words of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, that violence from pimps or johns does not lessen “the role of the state in making a prostitute vulnerable to that violence.”
It is this role that would be acknowledged and addressed if the government were to take action on bill C-36 and look to reforming laws surrounding the sex trade.
As the pre-inquiry process continues, I am more certain that the inquiry will fail in addressing the actual root causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, especially when it comes to those who work in the sex trade. The lived experiences of sex workers tell us that any criminalization of sex work makes them vulnerable.
We must not ignore the voices of those who continue to sell and trade sex. Because if we ignore these voices, we will continue to see Indigenous sex workers to go missing or be murdered.
And, where is the justice if there is no justice for all of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks?
Naomi Sayers is an indigenous feminist and an Anishnaabe-kwe who writes at www.kwetoday.com. She is currently studying law at the University of Ottawa and she is frequently asked to speak on issues relating to violence against Indigenous women and girls, and speak on policy relating to sex work.