Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Working from the Violent Centre: Survival Sex Work and Urban Aboriginality in Maria Campbell's Halfbreed

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Working from the Violent Centre: Survival Sex Work and Urban Aboriginality in Maria Campbell's Halfbreed

Article excerpt

From the early 1970s until 2002, at least fifty-nine women--more than half of whom were Aboriginal, (1) and many of whom were street-level sex workers--disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown East Side. Their disappearances from within this small neighbourhood in what has been labelled Canada's poorest postal code were treated with little interest by Vancouver police and municipal officials for two and a half decades. In February 2002, a recently-formed joint RCMP-city police task force charged a Port Coquitlam farmer with the murder of seven of the missing women. At the time of writing, Robert Pickton has been convicted of murdering six of the missing women: Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe, Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, and Andrea Joesbury. Pickton's lawyers are appealing this conviction; if they fail, federal prosecutors will not try Pickton for the pending twenty additional counts of first-degree murder--a decision not without significant public controversy. To date, however, many of the disappeared women are yet to be accounted for.

As the Vancouver investigation has unfolded (and as upwards of twenty more women are now missing from the same Vancouver streets), (2) a number of other serial kidnap and murder cases involving poor, racialized, and/or street-level sex workers have made headlines, particularly in Western Canada. In Edmonton, an RCMP and Edmonton police task force was formed in 2003 to investigate eighty-three cases, dating back to 1982, of murdered and disappeared women. A serial killer murdered four First Nations women and was suspected of killing at least three others in Saskatoon in the early 1990s. In addition, there have been a series of disappearances and violent murders in Winnipeg that police have only begun to investigate.

Cases like these fuel the efforts of groups who struggle to combat the social, political, and economic forces that contribute to increasing extreme violence against sex workers in Canada. Although many of these groups regularly underscore the high number of First Nations women involved in the survival sex trade, (3) as well as the overrepresentation of Indigenous women among kidnap, assault, and murder victims in Canada, sex worker activism in Canada remains primarily a white enterprise.

Even the briefest consideration of North America's colonial history provides many reasons why Indigenous women are overrepresented in inner-city populations of women who trade sex for dollar amounts which barely provide sustenance or to fund debilitating addictions. Such analyses also highlight a number of reasons for divisions between sex worker activists who work from a labour activist and/or communal human rights position and activists who foreground the role of state-sanctioned racism and colonial violence in populating the survival sex industry. The latter of these social movements--including the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), the Aboriginal Women's Action Network (AWAN), the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF, which funds, among other significant initiatives, a shelter for First Nations women in downtown Montreal), and the NWAC-affiliated research group Sisters in Spirit--emphasizes the combined effects of class bias, misogyny, and culturally ingrained racism in the assault, rape, and murder of many survival sex workers. These organizations and the anti-violence, anti-poverty, and anti-racism initiatives with which they are involved thus insist that Indigenous sex workers suffer and die because they are Aboriginal women whose already precarious cultural status too often becomes difficult to navigate and survive in contemporary urban contexts. Significantly, however, representatives from groups like these often assert that prostitution causes rape, poverty, and violence for Aboriginal women. For example, in 2007, AWAN released a statement opposing the legalization of brothels in Vancouver (proposed in anticipation of the 2010 Olympics). In this statement, AWAN argues that "[p]rostitution is inherently violent, [and is] merely an extension of the violence that most prostituted women experience as children. …

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