In an unprecedented move, Montreal's police force—bolstered by the Harper government's new puritanical prostitution laws—decided to create a special operation to crack down on the well-documented influx of sex tourism during F1 weekend.
There is no doubt about the Montreal's reputation as a hub for porn, Tinder orgies, and boozy dining, but it's also the only city in Canada to host a Formula One Grand Prix race, which means that every year tens of thousands of tourists descend upon our fair city, eager to catch a glimpse of the world's most elite sport and to get a taste of Montreal's famously depraved nightlife.
This overlap means big bucks for the city's service industry, with hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants raking in around $90 million in one weekend—a weekend when downtown Montreal is transformed into a grotesque circus of bottle service, miniskirts, and rented orange Lamborghinis. And that's not even the worst part.
The real dark side of this economic boom is its impact on the oldest service industry of them all—the sex trade.
More specifically, this investigation took place within an evolving legal landscape. Montreal's police have been changing their tactics as well as their language regarding prostitution lately. At a press conference in May, they said they would now be treating sex workers as "victims" and not criminals.
This is in keeping with a federal policy of criminalizing the demand side of the equation with the advent of Bill C-36, or the "Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act," which targets buyers and makes it illegal for third parties to advertise sex workers—all in the name of keeping society and sex workers safe from sex trafficking and dirty, dirty johns.
C-36 is the federal government's legislative response to the 2013 Supreme Court case R. v. Bedford, which struck down Criminal Code provisions prohibiting prostitution on the basis that the articles were "overbroad" and "grossly disproportionate" to their aims. Simply put, the Court ruled that criminalizing prostitution endangers the lives of sex workers more than prostitution endangers society.
This logical and rational idea was obviously at odds with Harper's "tough-on-crime" agenda. So when the Supreme Court gave Parliament one year to come up with a new legislative framework that was constitutional, no time was wasted in enacting a new set of Criminal Code articles which are proving to be a handy law enforcement tool.
VICE spoke with Johanne Paquin, Chief Inspector of Montreal's specialized units team, earlier this week shortly after she read the preliminary findings of the probe.
"C-36 was very useful in dealing with one of our main targets—the buying of sex," Paquin said. "The fact that the client is now criminalized has given us more discretion to investigate the purchase of sexual services."
Though the final results of the unnamed operation will not be shared with the public, Paquin confirmed that several arrests had been made in targeted areas and that she is quite satisfied with the results of the F1 investigation. "We definitely reached our objectives and we are happy with the outcome of the investigation."
Not surprisingly, police focused on the usual dens of inequity where one would expect to find sex workers. "We targeted and investigated all of the areas commonly associated with the sex trade on F1 weekend: motels, websites, hotels, massage parlours, and strip clubs."
For sex work advocacy group Stella, the new Criminal Code articles are unnecessary and actually potentially dangerous for women in the sex trade. "Our mandate at Stella is to make sure that they work in health and safety and dignity. We're obviously against exploitation, violence and forced work. But there are already laws for that."
Their spokesperson, Stéphanie, told VICE that there is a big discrepancy between the reality on the ground and what law enforcement and media are reporting. She questions even the basic narrative of Montreal becoming a huge brothel for one weekend every year.
"Formula One weekend is not as good for sex workers as it used to be. Every industry is busier that weekend. Restaurants, hotels, bars. Everybody wants to make money, not just sex workers. For Stella and the sex worker movement, we're a bit annoyed: why is the media only focusing on sex work?"
But according to police, the scope of the investigation went beyond the mere purchase of sexual services. It was also aimed at prostitution rings which exploit minors and closely monitored the online activity on escort sites.
"The specific F1 investigation was coordinated by our special investigation unit squad because they have specialized investigators and a team that focuses on the sexual exploitation of minors within these rings," Inspector Paquin said, adding that these teams provided crucial support to the morality squads who are "on the front lines in matters of street prostitution and the buying of sex work."
And law enforcement wasn't the only group with sex tourism in its crosshairs.
For the second year in a row, topless sextremists FEMEN stormed Crescent Street, the tourist epicenter of F1 weekend. Armed with a bottle of prosecco and bare breasts, their goal was to raise awareness and sensitize tourists about F1 weekend's underbelly by mock-masturbating on a car and repeatedly shouting "Montreal is NOT a brothel!", a stunt that garnered national headlines.
VICE caught up with FEMEN activist Neda Topaloski, who was arrested and charged with assault on a peace officer and "indecent acts" for parading around bare-breasted. Topaloski sees the city of Montreal as hypocritical and complicit in the exploitation of women during F1 weekend.
"By not talking about the fact that it's human trafficking that is behind it, and the rest of the year we pretend like we are fighting human trafficking in Canada and in Montreal. But then during this one weekend we do absolutely nothing to talk to people or girls about it. It's a whole system in which for money we'll all shut up," Topaloski said. "This whole industry is a huge part of Montreal's revenues. If you take the sex trade away from Grand Prix there is really not that much left."
Interestingly, FEMEN is actually on the same page as police when it comes to the Conservative crime bill, at least as far as it criminalizes buying sex. "We agree absolutely with it. It's all about criminalizing the client because they are the ones keeping the business alive and they are the ones buying humans. Without the consumers, there would be no business."
But sex workers are not quite as excited about Bill C-36. For Stella, criminalizing the client is part of the problem, not the solution and the perverse effect of the law is that it just shifts the risk to another group and actually makes sex workers more vulnerable.
"The good clients who have no criminal records are very scared because they have good jobs and a wife maybe, they don't want a criminal record, it's pretty scary," Stéphanie says. "And then they're stuck with the bad clients who don't give a shit and the women will be more at risk because financially the pressure is still there. Before they could screen and say, 'That guy looks kind of violent, I'm not going to do him.' But now, if they have no money and less clients, they'll take whoever."
For Stéphanie, clumsy efforts to control and regulate sex work neglect the fact that there are many women who do it willingly and depend on it financially.
"It's stupid to say we're not going to criminalize sex workers because they are victims, but we are going to criminalize everything around it. It makes no sense. It's not helpful. We want women to be able to do their work. We want everything to be decriminalized."
"Bedford was a great decision. It was a unanimous decision saying that the law is not safe for women. Unfortunately we have a Conservative government that legislated in a way that is not helpful at all for sex workers. It's still going to put them at risk."
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