Reaching out to sex workers Taking message to aboriginal women By MARK BONOKOSKI

November 22, 2009 at 6:58 pm (Uncategorized)

Last Updated: 13th November 2009, 5:28am

 On any given night, there are a number of known strolls stretching from Kingston Rd. down to the back streets of Parkdale that are the preferred turf for “hundreds” of sex-trade workers. No one knows the exact number — not the police, and not even those closely connected to the trade. But “hundreds” is the word often used, particularly on nights when the weather is kind. Out of that number, it is speculated that on any given night, upwards of two dozen of those sex-trade workers will be aboriginal women, some new to the game, but many of them seasoned street pros, their fraught-with-danger livelihood often fuelled by an addiction to drugs and alcohol. It is not a pretty picture, but it is the reality. And so, too, are the statistics. According to the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy, at least one aboriginal person a day — half of them women — are infected with HIV in this country, 32% through sexual contact and, with half of the aboriginal population now under the age of 25, it represents a burgeoning crisis that is in dire need of being tamed. But that is only part of the equation, at least in this city. Not that long ago, the Toronto Police sex-crimes unit created a special victims unit, a dedicated team of four officers who, on the busy nights, will patrol those aforementioned strolls, not to bust sex-trade workers, but to direct them to agencies that have their backs, and to bust those who do them harm. It is a fine line to walk. Some 20-plus years ago, some five years after the infamous gay bathhouse raids of 1981 had almost 3,000 angry demonstrators hitting the streets in protest over the perceived hammering of gay and sexual rights, a small organization called Maggie’s received government funding to become the first prostitute-staffed and prostitute-directed community service project in Canada. Some 20-plus years later, Maggie’s, a second-floor walkup on Gerrard St. E., still wants nothing to do with the cops, despite the changes in attitude and enforcement. “That’s just the way it is,” says Jessica Yee, the 24-year-old executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and an adviser to Maggie’s on aboriginal issues. Perhaps it is time these two twains meet. VALUABLE ALLIES Attitudes and sensitivities have changed, and those once thought to be at crossed purposes can be valuable allies. The special victims unit’s mandate and mission is straightforward and non-threatening, except to pimps. And it reads, in part, as follows: “To thoroughly investigate allegations of criminal sexual offences which have occurred against any person identified to be a sex worker; to recognize sex workers as ‘victims first;’ to identify and investigate sex workers under the age of 18 involved in juvenile prostitution; to apprehend sex workers under the age of 16 involved in juvenile prostitution and assist in their return to a safe environment; to identify, arrest and assist in the prosecution of pimps; to conduct regular outreach efforts with local community organizations and sex workers themselves; and to educate the public and police with respect to the unique dynamics of prostitution to promote greater understanding of its unique challenges.” There was a small barbecue not that long ago at Riverdale Park, in the heart of Toronto’s Cabbagetown district, to launch the Maggie’s-backed Aboriginal Sex Workers Outreach Project. It was Jackie Bath, 49, a former sex-trade worker and crack addict, and now an outreach worker for the project, who came up with the number of 20-26 aboriginal women plying the sex trade on any given night. “I work my way from Kingston Rd. down to Parkdale, and I do it most nights,” she says. “So I know most of them.” In her backpack she carries free condoms, clean works for intravenous drug users, as well as sterile crack pipes. Property Smith is the director of the new project, and has set a goal to educate aboriginal sex-trade workers in this city to the cultural programs that exist for First Nations women who, because of time’s passage, or their addictions, may have lost their grasp of First Nations culture and spirituality. ‘RAISE AWARENESS’ “We have to raise awareness of what’s out there,” she says. “There is a lot of denial for an aboriginal sex trade worker to deal with — from addictions to abuses to all sorts of trauma. “This project is all about harm reduction. It is not about lecturing. It is about keeping safe. “The sex trade, whether some people want to believe it or not, is most often a matter of choice. And it can be empowering,” says Smith. “But it can also be dangerous if preventative measures are not taken — for whatever the reason — and we must take that message to the street … from one sex-trade worker to another.” But, as Property Smith put it, when the rent is overdue, and a john offers three times the price not to use a condom, the choice becomes difficult. “But the right choice has to be made,” she says. “The wrong one has too many bad consequences. “That point has to be driven home — peer to peer.” MARK.BONOKOSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA OR 416-947-2445

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