New Bill Gives Police ‘Unchecked Power’ Over Sex Workers, Advocates Say

Two months after the Atlanta shootings exposed how poorly police treat sex workers, Doug Ford's government is working on legislation that makes it even easier to target them.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
Ontario Premier Doug Ford
Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government is working on legislation that advocates say will further target sex workers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Nearly two months after the Atlanta shootings, a conservative government in Canada is working on new anti-trafficking legislation that will make it easier—not more difficult—for police to target sex workers, advocates say. 

On March 17, a white gunman opened fire at three Atlanta massage parlours, leaving eight people dead, including six Asian women. During a press conference the following day, local police didn’t acknowledge the roles racism and anti-sex work discrimination played, and instead said the gunman was having a “bad day.” Police across the U.S. later vowed to deploy more officers in order to combat the concerning rise in anti-Asian racism.

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The shootings prompted several organizations across Canada and the U.S. to demand that governments and police avoid policing sex worker communities.

Atlanta Shooting Shows How Police Are Failing Asian Women

But now, Doug Ford’s government in Ontario is working on an anti-trafficking bill that would force hotels to register all people entering rooms, including names and addresses—information that police can later request without a court order, as long as there are “urgent” and “reasonable grounds” to suspect a trafficking victim is at risk.

“We have people being exploited but they don't listen to us,” said Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly, an advocacy group for Asian and migrant sex workers in Toronto. “We share our concerns but they're not being included.”

If Bill 251, or the Combating Human Trafficking Act, is passed, bylaw inspectors will also enjoy authority to enter any place suspected of trafficking without a warrant or notice at any time, and anyone who refuses to welcome an inspector or opts not to answer questions can face a fine of up to $50,000.

“It’s an unchecked expansion of police power,” Lam said. “This isn’t necessary because if the police are suspicious, they can already get a court order.”

According to Lam, the bill violates privacy and human rights.

In a statement to VICE World News, Ontario solicitor general spokesperson Stephen Warner said his team has already engaged with sex workers.

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“This legislation’s purpose is to deter human trafficking, support investigations into suspected human trafficking, and help identify and locate victims of human trafficking. The legislation does not target sex workers,” Warner said, claiming that the average trafficking victim is 13 years old. The Ontario government is using a 2013 statistic released by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a charity that advocates for women and girls.

The government “thinks all this power is to help and rescue youth, but with people trafficked, it's more underground,” Lam said. “They’re just giving law enforcement power for racial profiling and targeting sex workers.”

Lam said not only is the advice she and others have been offering—such as police cooperation with advocacy groups and implementing labour rights for sex workers—isn’t being adopted, and the government has also not invited some of the key stakeholders to participate in discussions. (The bill is being debated before Ontario’s standing committee on justice policy this week.)

According to Butterfly and other advocacy groups, including HIV Legal Network, the No Pride in Policing Coalition, and Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, the bill will enable police to profile sex workers and people of colour. Sex work, which is consensual by definition, is regularly conflated with human and sex-trafficking, and VICE World News previously reported how anti-trafficking raids are often a guise for law enforcement to target sex workers, or for Canadian border services to seek out migrant sex workers who don’t have legal status. 

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In April 2018, Butterfly published a report that included 18 migrant or Asian sex workers detailing examples of anti-sex trafficking raids that harmed sex workers—15 of them were deported by the time of publication. 

Black, Indigenous, and people of colour will also be disproportionately harmed by the bill, advocates say. 

In a press conference held by Butterfly and others on Tuesday, Robyn Maynard, activist and writer of Policing Black Lives, warned the legislation will allow police to further profile Black women.

“My own research shows that Black women are often assumed and profiled to be involved in sex work, merely for existing in public space,” Maynard said. “Black women involved in sex work experience police profiling, targeted arrests, and even violence.”

Bill 251 is only the latest piece of legislation in Ontario that endangers sex workers. Previous anti-trafficking bills as well as local bylaws, including one in Toronto that denies massage parlour workers the right to lock their storefronts, have been called out for the harm they cause. Last year, a man with a large machete killed Ashley Noell Arzaga, a 24-year-old massage parlour worker and mother of one—a tragedy that could have been avoided if the door was locked.

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