The corner of Avenue C and 20th Street West in the heart of Riversdale, Saskatoon, is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada.
BY LINDSAY COLEMAN, ILLUSTRATIONS BY LAURA PARK
The corner of Avenue C and 20th Street West in the heart of Riversdale, Saskatoon, is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada. On a recent evening, the only open businesses here were a Chinese restaurant up the road and a pawnshop. Everything else was either locked up for the night or abandoned. The terrain is so flat that the sound of police sirens carried from miles away. You could actually hear the wind blowing through the streets. There weren’t many people outside. Some crackhead in sweatpants was shouting nonsense across the street. I was standing on the corner talking to two good-looking prostitutes. Both girls had recently been released from prison.
“So far today I gave one guy head and robbed two others,” said Chantelle, who is barely five feet tall. She was wearing black sweatpants with piping running up the sides and a pair of generic white sneakers. She’s 25 years old, but she looks much younger. She was born on a reserve a few hours outside of the city and has been a prostitute since she was nine years old. “I was forced into it,” she said. “That’s how it all started.”
Her friend Stef has a similar story. She left the reserve young, was prostituted by force when she was ten, and has been in Saskatoon ever since.
“The first time I ever did it,” Chantelle told me, “a guy took me around a corner and made me give him a blow job.” And this was when you were nine, I confirmed. “Yes,” Chantelle said. “Child prostitution is big. I see the little kids out here and I slap them. I tell them to get the fuck off the street. But what can you do? A lot of them are being forced to do it by their families so they can have more money.”
“In ’99 a blow job was $60, sex was $80, and a half-and-half was $100,” Stef said. Almost a decade later, prices are at rock bottom. “Now the prices are like $20 or even $10 because there’s more competition. It’s way harder to make a living now than it used to be.” Chantelle nodded in agreement.
The area has seen an influx of sex-trade workers who are offering lower-than-usual prices in an attempt to entice clients away from the competition. “Most of our clients we know, or we know through someone somehow,” Stef explained, “but the ones we don’t know—the ones that just pull up looking for a good time—those are the guys we rob.”
Stef and Chantelle decided it was time to take a break and go for a drink. We turned on to a side street and made our way to a local bar. The wind was so strong that the stoplights were bouncing up and down. Almost every house on the street looked like a small, dilapidated barn. There was row upon row of sinking verandas, leaky roofs, and clapboard. Many of the houses were boarded up.
Stef and Chantelle don’t have homes of their own. They pay people to let them sleep on their couches or crash in a spare room for a little while. Some parts of Saskatoon are pretty well off, and an economic growth spurt has driven prices sky-high. Rent control has been abolished. As a result, even total dumps are too expensive for many locals. There are few hostels and a severe lack of social housing. The working poor live in their cars or in rent-by-the-week motels like the Barry around the corner. (It had a piece of white paper in the window that said “Closed” on it, and when I returned a few days later I learned that it was about to be demolished. I went inside and found rooms with dirty syringes on the floors and blood on the walls.)
There was a parking lot next to the bar and another one behind it. The outside glowed with a creepy blue light, but inside it was clean and carpeted. There was a curtain in the back that hid a room reserved for private events and banquets, and a row of video-lottery terminals that made high-pitched electronic squeals and bangs. A large group of native women in black sweatshirts sat at a big table. They looked like they were in their 30s and they stared like they wanted to beat the shit out of us, but no one said anything. One guy was sitting alone wearing sunglasses and a black leather cowboy hat. Three vodka drinks cost us $14.
I asked the girls about local gangs like the Terror Squad, Native Syndicate, and Indian Posse. All are known to be major players in the community. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stef said, shaking her head at me. “I don’t know nothing about no gangs. We’ve never even heard those names before, have we?” she asked, looking to Chantelle for support. “Nope.” Chantelle agreed. There is no better proof of the iron-fisted grip gangs have over the community than the fact that the residents won’t even discuss them. But most of the drug and sex trade is being run through gang networks.
“OK, look, I can’t tell you who, but I can tell you there are gangs in the area,” Chantelle eventually offered. “I was taken hostage by a rival gang of my ex-boyfriend’s a few years ago,” she said. “They held me hostage for five days. Had me tied me up for most of it. They broke my arm, fractured my...” She trailed off. “I wished I would die.” Eventually they returned her to her ex-boyfriend. During her abduction, no missing-persons report was filed and no police action was taken. Incidents like this are commonplace, and because they generally go unreported, obtaining accurate statistics is impossible.
“From a police perspective, we know who most of the players are and we keep tabs on these people,” Lorne Constantinoff, Saskatoon’s police inspector, told me. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how we’re going to catch them.” But the violence in the neighborhood can’t be attributed to a single source. Gangs might be the worst offenders, but shootings and stabbings are common occurrences among non-gang members as well. Stef and Chantelle told me that more and more prostitutes are using dirty needles as weapons in stickups. “Prostitutes who are dope-sick do it,” Stef said. “They hold them up with dirty needles because it’s easier and it’s faster and they want their dope.” While neither Stef nor Chantelle have tested positive for HIV, they both have hepatitis C.
According to the local deputy medical health officer, Dr. John Mark Opondo, almost two-thirds of all new HIV cases in Saskatoon are from dirty needles. “We have been seeing, in the last few years, a rapid increase in the frequency of HIV cases, especially in the risk group of sex workers who also use needles for drug use,” said Opondo. People are injecting everything from cocaine to Ritalin. In an attempt to diminish the contraction of HIV, the Ministry of Health has created programs like a needle exchange. “We have a van that goes around to various places in the community, and we have three or four fixed exchange locations,” said Opondo. The Ministry of Health has also stationed receptacles specifically for the collection and safe disposal of contaminated needles. “We are seeing a rise in IV drug use. In particular crystal meth is becoming very popular, as well as the use of crack cocaine intravenously,” said Constantinoff.
The fact that Saskatoon is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere means that it has to rely on cross-country traffic for its drugs, so huge busts and crackdowns elsewhere in the country can make the supply unpredictable. And since Saskatoon is about 15 years behind in pop culture, the rave scene has only just landed. Drugs like Special-K are in high demand now, but when a British Columbian source was recently raided, it left the entire city of Saskatoon dry. It’s virtually impossible to get K there today, and when you can find it, it costs more than coke. Stef told me that there’s a small independent operation that brings it in from Ontario sometimes. It’s probably worth their trouble: People will pay a ton for K here, and dealers can make huge profits.
When demand exceeds supply, Stef and Chantelle will prostitute themselves for drugs instead of money. “Cocaine and mo, those are our drugs of choice. But I like cocaine the best.” Stef says.
The bar was filling up—it was karaoke night. They had videos on a big-screen TV in the middle of the room. Stef returned from her third trip to the bathroom and she seemed to be in a much better mood. She was smiling a lot and sweating less. The girls talked about their plans for the rest of the night. Chantelle was squirming in her chair and tapping her legs against the table. She seemed agitated. Stef had blown through more of their stash than they’d agreed on. To supplement their income from prostitution, they both sell off whatever drugs they don’t use, but now Stef had done most of it.
We went outside for a cigarette. Stef unzipped her pants and pulled them down slightly. She reached into her underwear and started to scratch her crotch. “Aw, time to shave again,” she said. She kept rubbing herself vigorously as about ten other smokers stood around and watched her. When we got back inside, she headed to the bathroom again. Chantelle and I sat at the table and finished our drinks.
“I went to university, you know,” she told me. “I took engineering, but I ended up being a drug counselor. I went to schools and gave speeches about how I did drugs and why I quit. I was clean for four years.” She poked at the ice in her glass as she told me about her three kids and how they’re all in foster care. “I think they’re better off where they are,” she said. “I can’t take care of them when I’m like this. I can’t do things with them when I’m high. They would want to go to the park and I couldn’t take them because I just wanted to do drugs. I couldn’t make ends meet. Welfare was paying $475 of my $1,300-a-month rent. For a family of four! It’s not enough. People can’t live. They have to find other ways to pay the bills. I want to get my kids back and be working. I want to get off of this. But I don’t have a home, I don’t have anything or anyone to fall back on.”
When the girls were ready to leave the bar I dropped them off at a strip mall a couple miles away. Chantelle and Stef hugged me and hopped out of the taxi like I’d just dropped them off at the movies. What they were actually going to do was sell $20 blow jobs and maybe rob a few guys to make enough money for more drugs. And that’s probably a good night in Riversdale, Saskatoon, the flattest place in Canada.