January was global Human Trafficking Awareness Month. In the wake of the Bedford Supreme Court decision decriminalizing sex work, police across Canada coordinated and carried out a massive, sting-style operation targeting and potentially entrapping as many as 330 women sex workers in an anti-trafficking initiative aimed at multiple cities, including Toronto, Kingston, London, Ottawa, and Waterloo in Ontario. Details of the operation, which took place on January 22nd and 23rd, first surfaced on social media when workers across the GTA began to warn each otherabout the raids, posting known numbers that police posing as clients called from.
Police used the pseudonym "John" according to workers who were targeted. They found the women—and the police only targeted sex working women—largely through the website Backpage.com. Once the initial online interaction had been made, numbers were exchanged and details confirmed. Workers were met by one plainclothes officer who did not identify themselves as police until in the elevator or the hallway near their door, which is significant given most independent workers targeted operated out of their homes.
At that point, badges came out and workers were informed that three other officers were already on the way and that they were there to "help" them. Faced with the option of having a loud conversation about sex work in the hallway or elevator of their building of residence, many workers chose to invite police in. One woman, Quinn, recounted her experience to Ottawa based sex worker advocacy group POWER:
"My options at that point were either to continue to have a conversation with OPS in my hallway, where my neighbours could overhear, or to invite them in and have a conversation behind closed doors. So, obviously I chose to invite them in. I didn't really feel like I had an option, given that three of the officers were already on my floor and a fourth was on his way," she said.
Once she let them in, they demanded to see her identification (with her real name on it) and conducted a search of her apartment without her consent. The justification behind the illegal search?
"Ottawa Police have said that because I invited the officers into my location, that they then did not need a warrant to go through my location to ensure their safety," according to Quinn.
Because Quinn invited the police in—seemingly under duress—they were performing the search for their own safety. The obvious question is: what sort of threat does a single female sex worker present to four male police officers?
"All four officers were white men, mid-30s, wearing street clothing. They ignored me when I said that they did not have permission to search through my apartment. They said they did not need a warrant because I had invited them in, and they were just making sure that they were safe. When I went to block an officer from opening a closet, he told me not to touch him as that would be assault of an officer," Quinn said.
Interestingly, it seems police used different tactics when they contacted workers at established spas and massage parlours, in Ontario at least. They had a female officer present and were respectful when workers declined to speak with them or give identification. They did not book sessions under false pretenses as they did with independent workers.
"At a spa or parlour, there is often more than one provider present, which may also include management or a receptionist. I was alone with four male officers, which is incredibly intimidating in terms of the power dynamics, especially given that I was a lone female who was expecting one client to arrive, and also as a female who has experienced sexual assault (in my personal past, not as a worker). To say that I felt intimidated and harassed is really putting it lightly," Quinn explained.
A coalition of sex workers and advocates across Canada, comprised of the Sex Professionals of Canada, Sex Workers Action Group Kingston, Stop The Arrests!, and Maggie's: the Toronto Sex Workers Action Group amongst others released a statement on Facebook last week condemning the operation as intimidation and an invasion of privacy in lieu of prostitution arrests being suspended post-Bedford.
"These sorts of deceitful and menacing approaches further degrade trust between sex workers and the police, and stop people in exploitative situations from seeking and accepting police assistance. This policing strategy seems to contradict the recent Supreme Court decision that insisted that the law cannot be used to further endanger the security and safety of sex workers. Sex workers express feeling intimidated by the current police tactic and coerced into allowing police into their homes and worksites. Privacy and dignity are compromised," the statement read in part.
Ottawa Police released a statement themselves last week explaining that the project—known as Operation Northern Spotlight—was launched to rescue victims of human trafficking and those forced into the sex trade. Police have identified a fifteen year old girl as a victim of trafficking in Burlington, who they say was being controlled by a twenty-two year old woman, and as many as twelve girls and women were "believed to be under some degree of control" in the Durham and Peel regions.
The methods used in Operation Northern Spotlight (not to mention the name itself) however, clearly act to stigmatize, intimidate, and surveil sex working women. Not only is it hard to believe police believe they will be able to help victims come forward by carrying out what are essentially four man raids, it also flies directly in the face of the Bedford decision handed down by the highest authority on the law, the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Bedford decision states quite clearly that the law, in both its prescription and application, must prioiritize harm reduction for sex workers: "...the harms identified by the courts below are grossly disproportionate to the deterrence of community disruption that is the object of the law. Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety, and lives of prostitutes."
I was able to sit down with Chanelle Gallant, spokesperson for Maggie's Toronto to talk more about the complicated intersection of sex work, policing, and human trafficking. Gallant is deeply concerned with the plight of abused and trafficked women yet remains critical of what some have termed the "saviour industrial complex" around human trafficking.
"There's a common misbelief that these tactics are necessary to help people that are being hurt but in fact they do the opposite. They entrap hundreds of people who are choosing sex work and scare off the people who may really need help. We [at Maggie's] are concerned about coercion and exploitation and this isn't an effective method. It creates a lot of fear and mistrust and sets back any attempts that are being made to help sex workers that need help," Gallant said.
The myths that surround sex trafficking often feed narratives that may disempower or harm the women the police seek to help in the first place. In anticipation of Super Bowl weekend for example, which is often touted as causing a surge in sex trafficking, there is an uptick in policing initiatives to prevent sex trafficking. The only problem is, it appears there is no empirical data to back that claim up. An online hashtag started recently, #notyourrescueproject aims to ask critical questions around these myths and narratives while centring the voices of sex working individuals.
These conversations are coming at a critical moment. Part of the Bedford desicion suspended the ruling for one year to give Parliament time to respond and ostensibly draft new legislation. In an article for the Globe and Mail, Alan Young, lawyer for the sex workers that brought the Bedford suit, explained that the recent decision creates a seemingly paradoxical situation where the law remains in place but cannot be enforced. Policing initiatives conducted around trafficking which primarily impact sex working as opposed to trafficked women, then, seem to occupy a legal grey area particularly when it comes to intent versus effect.
"Harassing over 300 sex workers in this manner is a misuse of police resources, oversteps acceptable police conduct and undermines everyone's right to fair application of the law. It's a terrible method for trying to address violence and coercion in the industry," said Gallant. "People don't want to come forward who may need help. We have questions about if this was part of a backlash against the recent Supreme Court win."