The Hidden Face of Prosperity

In northern Alberta, a sharp rise in prostitution is a devastating downside of the boom

By Cheryl Mahaffy

Six years ago, when RCMP constable Scott Hagarty moved to grande Prairie, prostitution was almost invisible in the city of 31,000. Today, grande Prairie’s population is pushing 50,000, plus a significant shadow population of resource workers. And prostitution is overt, complete with an identifiable stroll. Drive downtown, particularly when it’s shift-change time at nearby oil and gas operations, and you’ll see wasted youngsters staking out corners beside the abandoned York Hotel or climbing shakily into throbbing four-by-fours. Some do their business in the willows of nearby Muskoseepi Park, where drug deals dominate the skate zone and overnighters bed down among the trees.

“The massive impact of the Alberta boom in our area has certainly had an effect,” Hagarty says. “We’re told time and time again that young men in company trucks are picking up our street workers.” As many as 50 individuals are selling their bodies on the street, while dozens more offer massage and escort services, whether licensed or fly-by-night.

In a province where cities have grown at up to five times the national average rate, grande Prairie is far from alone in this regard. “I travel rural Alberta, and prostitution is epidemic,” says Derek Chewka, chair of the Edmonton Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee (EAUAC). “Small towns that you thought were unaffected—it’s not like that anymore.” It’s no coincidence that the Edmonton Sun has sprouted escort ads for outlying communities such as Slave Lake, High Level, grande Prairie and Fort McMurray, he says. “The men… go back up to work, and the women follow. And not only women—boys as well.”

Edmonton police detective Jim Morrissey discovered Alberta’s in-your-face prostitution during a recent trip north. “I couldn’t go down an elevator in Fort McMurray without somebody offering sexual services for money,” he recalls. “The mayor will shoot me for saying that, but it’s the truth.”

Indeed, communities struggling to hold their social fabric together don’t always welcome having the spotlight on such issues. University of Alberta professor Sara Dorow discovered this in June, when she visited Fort McMurray with a class studying the impacts of the oil boom. An October 2006 Chatelaine article, “Down and Dirty in Fort McMurray,” had come under particular fire for highlighting high-income escorts while ignoring riverside trails and other assets locals hold dear. Mayor Melissa Blake called it “drive-by journalism.” Such “circling the wagons,” Dorow says, reflects how fragile the sense of community can become.

But averting our eyes won’t make the problem go away. “I think we need to recognize that in a boom economy there will be new issues,” says MacEwan College corrections instructor Kevin Hood. “The largest share of the boom is young males coming into Alberta, men 18 to 25 who have huge buckets of money. What does that mean to our social fabric? When some of us have way too much money and others have too little, those are the issues that brew.”

So look it in the face, folks: here’s another downside of the boom. Not that sexual exploitation wouldn’t be here without the boom. Not that it will disappear when the boom sputters. But, as in other aspects of life in Alberta, the speed of the in- flux has left communities across Alberta scrambling to cope.

The consequences of prostitution range from severe to fatal. This concerns Chewka of the EAUAC, since more than half of Alberta’s prostitutes are Aboriginal.

Gonorrhea rates across Alberta doubled between 2000 and 2005, to 261 per 100,000 among First Nations people and 37.4 per 100,000 among everyone else. Not only are First Nations Albertans seven times more likely to have gonorrhea, but 68 per cent of those infected are female. Tellingly, the preponderance flips among other Albertans: 75 per cent of those with gonorrhea are male.

Prostitutes are also vulnerable to murder. In Grande Prairie, Constable Hagarty is all too aware of the 26 bodies unearthed on the Robert Pickton farm 13 hours west in BC—and of the strikingly similar number of women in high-risk lifestyles missing or killed less than five hours southeast in greater Edmonton.

Communities struggling to hold their social fabric together don’t welcome having the spotlight on such issues.

“What if the person or persons responsible for the deaths in Edmonton decide to come?” he says. “We don’t want to be the next place parents come to say, ‘My daughter worked here, and I haven’t heard from her since.’”

With that in mind, Hagarty teamed up with City of grande Prairie crime prevention manager Karen Gariepy to form the Citizen Action Committee on Prostitution. Through “conversation cafés” and other forums, the committee learned that sexual exploitation isn’t only about outside and outsiders. It’s reaching deep and young into grande Prairie neighbourhoods. “Parents and teachers talk about a blow job club where girls as young as grade 6 learn that if they give oral sex, they get money, an iPod, drugs, a ride home—and they’re considered one of the ‘in’ crowd,” Hagarty says. “We need to address the myths and concerns of the young women and men in our community who may look at this as a viable way to make money as they get older.”

Having talked with Grande Prairie Regional College students who carve out study time by working one night a week at escort wages rather than six nights a week in a restaurant, Hagarty knows the lure of quick money, particularly in a town with boom-inflated cost of living. “But down the road, is that going to destroy their self esteem? Are they going to be sucked into the drug culture? Become a victim of violence?”

A needs assessment conducted on behalf of the prostitution committee reinforces those fears. Based on input from 14 street workers, researcher Cheryl King recounts gruesome details of women being thrown from moving vehicles, beat up or forced to do more than promised. A john might agree to wear a condom, then stop in mid-act, take off the condom and proceed. “Often there’s intent to violate,” says King.

Many live without the basics they need to even contemplate quitting the street, King adds. Often driven by poverty, addictions or both, and unable to find affordable housing in Grande Prairie’s squeezed market, most are homeless or barely housed. They lack access to showers, let alone health care, addictions treatment and something positive to do during the day. “Many of these girls have been abandoned all their lives. If they decide to leave the life they’re in, you have to catch them right at that moment; it may never come around again.”

Edmontonian Kate Quinn knows exactly what booming Alberta communities are living through. In the early nineties, her inner city street was a thoroughfare for circling johns. drug houses pocked the neighbourhood, and her two young sons walked past condoms and used needles on the way to school. Fearing for all involved, Quinn banded with neighbours, politicians, bureaucrats and social service agencies to seek solutions.

“Working together over a 10-year period, 1992 to end of 2001, we saw that we could reduce the numbers of individuals on the street, advocate to get more resources in place, and effect some change,” says Quinn, now executive director of the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton (PAAFE). “But in these next years, we’ve suffered loss of housing and the boom, and everything’s overwhelmed.”

To gauge the depth of the crisis, in late 2006 the crime prevention collaborative Safedmonton asked me to create a snapshot of the scene. Interviews with more than a dozen groups whose work intersects with prostitution confirmed what many Edmontonians already know: sexual exploitation is on the rise in our city, and agencies trying to heal the pain are running in crisis mode. As in Alberta’s boom communities, everyone is hurting.

The snapshot was supposed to focus on street prostitution, but interview after interview veered into angst about sexual exploitation where it’s harder to track—behind closed doors. In Edmonton, escort services, massage parlours and exotic entertainment are licensed under 1993 bylaws aimed at moving sex for hire off the street and into a safer environment. Those businesses are proliferating now, invading neighbourhoods, and there’s an uneasy sense that those involved remain at risk. Experience from cities such as Amsterdam tells us that sanctioned prostitution attracts organized crime.

When organized crime moves in, its baggage includes human trafficking. As journalist Victor Malarek points out in his 2003 book The Natashas: The New Global Sex Trade, this modern form of slavery, in which human beings are coerced, transported and forced to perform sexual acts, is the perfect money-maker, with fresh goods available for the taking and wasted ones dispatched.

Is it happening here? Albertans tend to think not, but Changing Together, a centre for immigrant women, saw enough red flags to launch a study, funded by Status of Women, that is proving us wrong. Definite patterns are emerging and kingpins are becoming established, says study coordinator Sherilyn Trompetter. Aboriginal women from reserves are being lured into bigger cities, then moved between such centres as Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton. Victims are also coming from overseas, an act made easier by Alberta’s hunger for foreign workers to fill employment gaps. “People [running] the sex trade are preying on people’s hopes and dreams,” Trompetter says. “We’re living in a society that is implicitly allowing that. It makes me very sad.”

Such findings prompted the Edmonton Police Service to assign a full-time trafficking officer. Jim Morrissey was given the job. Six months later, he said that his notebook was full of hard evidence that people are being trafficked in and out, and that organized crime is involved. “Every time I look,” he says, “I find it.”

Is it inevitable that wherever men (and some- times women) congregate with money and time on their hands, sexual exploitation will proliferate? Morrissey believes that addressing what many call “the demand side” is vital. “If there’s any place we don’t put enough emphasis, it’s the customers,” he says. “Take the money out of the equation, and the girls will have to go do something else—maybe something not as desperate and nasty. And we can really reduce the demand, I think, through education.”

Skeptical? Consider recent shifts in attitudes toward drinking and driving. “Back in the seventies,” Morrissey says, “you could say you were so wasted on the weekend that you had to drive home because you were too drunk to walk, and people would think it was funny. Now if you say that, they’ll say you’re an idiot and threaten to phone you in. It’s not socially acceptable anymore.”

Morrissey points to Sweden as a model. “They really, really take a dim view of men using women and children for sex, whether they pay for it or not. Guys go to jail and lose their houses and their wives. And you know what? Maybe they should. When you leave your 15-year-old daughter at home to go have sex with someone else’s child, you deserve it.”

Sweden does not criminalize sellers of sex, but since 1999 it has prohibited the purchase of sexual services. Speaking at an Edmonton conference last fall, Swedish-Canadian lawyer Gunilla Eckberg contrasted that approach to Holland’s sanctioning of its red light district, which she termed “the politics of resignation.”

Positive results in Sweden, including a reduction in human trafficking, have prompted Lithuania, Finland and South Korea to pass similar laws. Might Canada follow suit? Not likely. As it stands, Canadian law does not outlaw adult prostitution, but does prohibit many of the activities that surround it, including solicitation, operating a bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution. On paper, segments of the law apply to sellers, buyers, pimps and traffickers. In practice, the women and men on the streets, already the most vulnerable, are most often arrested.

“The men are so used to being ‘used’ that they have very little respect for the women.”

Discontent with the current regime prompted a Parliamentary review, but the committee failed to reach consensus on legislative change. In a report released late last year, it con- ceded that both human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors under 18 must be treated as serious crimes. They urged increased attention to the thorny issues surrounding prostitution, including poverty, social inequality, addictions, ill health, lack of exit support and spotty law enforcement. But regarding the laws, they split. The majority recommended against prohibiting “sexual activities between consenting adults that do not harm others, whether or not payment is involved;” a minority called for heavy fines on perpetrators, with the proceeds used to address the resulting harm.

Those two positions reflect an unresolved divide between those who see all prostitution as exploitative and those who say adults have the right to choose it. The latter argue that attempts to regulate prostitution drive it underground and deeper into neighbourhoods, bringing stigma and danger. It’s a perspective I hear from “hazel,” whose blog is a forum for people in prostitution. “In the years since regulations came into effect, the number of sex workers murdered in this country has skyrocketed,” she writes in response to my e-mail. “The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is rotten.” It’s also a position held by the Toronto-based Sex Professionals of Canada, which launched a constitutional challenge this March charging that federal laws violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Many who know prostitution’s effects beg to differ. I think of Dawn Hodgins, who left the streets 13 years ago and now serves as project coordinator for PAAFE. “I don’t feel like I have the scarlet ‘P’ on me,” she says, “but I do feel like some part of me will never be right because I have information others don’t have. There is a cruelness and meanness most of us will never see.” I think of Charlene, an Aboriginal mother and writer who has tried repeatedly to rise above prejudice, rape, addiction, self-loathing. her description of one awfully normal night includes rape, robbery and a back-alley miscarriage.

During her address in Edmonton, Eckberg noted that the history of sexual exploitation in Canada stretches far back, encompassing fur traders’ use of Aboriginal women, and abuse in residential schools.

“I hope one day Canada is able to achieve some monumental strides,” she said. “You don’t change the world in 20 years, but you can have a political vision on which direction you want the world to change in.”

Particularly in light of an uncertain federal future, Alberta’s situation begs for provincial leadership. Where minors are concerned, the province has taken a stance: prostitution involving children is sexual abuse. Under the Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution (PChIP) Act, passed in 1999 and groundbreaking at the time, police and child protection workers can take a child involved in prostitution to a safe house for up to five days of assessment, care and exit planning.

“Before, it was assumed kids were making bad choices,” recalls Kevin Hood, who helped implement PChIP while working with Alberta children’s Services. “PChIP was a very clear statement: ‘No—this is child sexual abuse.’”

Like many I interview, Hood sees the need for a global response similar to Manitoba’s comprehensive strategy to address sexual exploitation and community safety. “The work in Alberta is somewhat piecemeal, so it may not have the desired impact,” he says. “If you don’t know why you’re doing something, it’s not necessarily going to happen.”

Under Manitoba law, adults in prostitution are considered victims, and are promised support for leaving the streets and building new lives. Buyers of sex face criminal consequences ranging from “john school” to licence suspension, vehicle seizure, fines and jail. Neighbourhoods have tools to battle drug houses, massage parlours and other impacts of prostitution. Preventive measures include the cybertip website for citizens concerned about online exploitation of children, and a Neighbourhood Solutions resource book.

Certain aspects of the Manitoba strategy are being imported into Alberta. For example, a bill emulating Manitoba’s Safer communities and Neighbourhoods Act, which has already helped shut down more than 200 drug and prostitution houses, is wending its way through the Alberta Legislature. Other Manitoba techniques are already here. Alberta police can now seize the vehicles of apprehended johns. AADAC’s Enhanced Services for Women initiative is working with sex workers in Calgary, Edmonton and grande Prairie.

But all those efforts add up to not enough, particularly since the boom struck, says PAAFE’s Quinn. her office has received numerous calls from smaller communities and she is acutely aware that other areas would benefit from initiatives at work in Edmonton, including career transition programs with Alberta Employment, Immigration & Industry, and alternative sentencing programs with Alberta Justice. “It seems to me we need a massive investment right now,” Quinn says. “Not two years, not three years, but strategic five-year investments in the programs that have demonstrated they really work.”

A prostitution strategy could move forward quickly by borrowing from the field of family violence, where police, courts and social workers have put numerous protocols in place to protect family members who report abuse. “While the situation is more complicated for people exiting prostitution, there are lots of parallels,” says city of Edmonton community development social worker Dorian Smith. “I think we are where they were 15 years ago.”

Edmonton Police Service’s vice unit recently took a step in that direction by incorporating sex workers into a vulnerable- person strategy that already embraces other abused women, children and seniors. “In spousal violence, the courts have really tried to take the onus off the women to put their husbands in jail,” says sergeant Bill Spinks, who heads the unit. “Women in prostitution have just as much to lose, and their safety is just as much at risk, yet we’ve expected them to get up on the stand and provide evidence. We need to take the onus off the women.”

Dymphny Dronyk drives through Grande Prairie’s four-block downtown most mornings to drop her son at Milano for Men, where he sells upscale suits just steps away— yet a world apart—from destitute people making desperate deals. It’s as if an invisible but powerful wall separates the two, with people on each side wilfully blind to the other. “It feels like everything has been stripped down to being a commodity,” Dronyk writes. “And it becomes a two-way sickness. The men are also so used to being ‘used’ that they have very little respect for the women. Because men make so much more than women, typically, there is a real power over them. I know this has always been true, but I believe that it is exacerbated in this surreal climate of extreme incomes and extreme costs.”

For many, the extended reach of this infection is suprising. The RCMP’s Hagarty recalls the stunned silence at a conversation café when the owner of an escort agency nonchalantly mentioned that 95 per cent of her customers are married. “This is not just a policing issue, this is not an AADAC issue; this is a community issue,” he says. “We as a community have to work together.”

Indeed, collaboration among front-line agencies is essential. grande Prairie, Edmonton and other communities are proving as much. But it’s equally clear that provincial and federal policies and strategies, both economic and social, can do much to enable—or undermine—local success.

Six years from now, will Alberta cities be more deeply mired in sexual exploitation—and still scrambling to respond? I prefer Quinn’s vision: “I think if we work together strategically, we can overcome the chaos and crises of the last three years.”

A contributor to the anthology Edmonton on Location, Cheryl Mahaffy last wrote for Alberta Views on daycare.


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