Council Urged to Protect Sex Workers

Yesterday afternoon, women pleaded with city councillors, urging them to pressure the province to restore funding for Vancouver’s Mobile Access Project, and to take steps at the city level to protect sex workers.

The Mobile Access Project’s (MAP) provincial funding was cut earlier this year. The MAP van used to drive through the city, giving sex workers condoms, clean needles and descriptions of violent johns. The van, which costs approximately $20,000 per month to operate, has been parked since mid-June.

One of the women urging council to fight to restore the services provided through the project was Maggie de Vries. Her sister Sarah worked in the city’s sex trade for years until she disappeared in April 1998 at the age of 28.

Convicted serial killer Robert Pickton is charged with Sarah’s murder.

Yesterday, de Vries told council that after her sister disappeared, she learned how few services were available to sex workers in the city, and how little attention was being paid to their disappearances.

“The mayor at the time… had just offered a reward in the case of garage robberies in the west side of Vancouver. When asked about offering a similar reward in the cases of the missing women, he said, ‘We’re not operating a locating service’,” de Vries recalled. “The police were adamant that there was no need to resource the cases until evidence was discovered, so nothing was done.”

de Vries pressed her hands flat against the top of the podium and looked at each of the councillors seated before her. A photograph of her sister rested beside her notes, beaming up at her as she spoke.

“Then, as you all know, the search started in February 2002 and suddenly there were enormous resources available for the search to uncover remains. But while all of that was going on, right up until 2002 and while there was a review team reviewing stacks and stacks of documents, women were still dying,” she continued. “Women were still disappearing and there didn’t seem to be any real efforts made to put things in place to keep these women safe.”

But then in 2004, the Mobile Access Project was launched in a joint effort between the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (PACE) and the Women’s Information Safe Haven (WISH). Since then, funding for the project has come from a variety of sources, including BC’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, the former Ministry of Community Services, and the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

“The van created a place where at least several times a night, women could go and talk to people,” said de Vries. “It was a place where maybe the women could go and trust the people in the van to report violence that they had suffered to the police.”

“The MAP van was there and now it’s gone and it drives me mad. It drives me absolutely mad because if it had existed when my sister was alive, she might still be alive now,” she concluded, her voice cracking with emotion. “Please make them put it back.”

Other women warned councillors that bringing back the MAP van would be a good first step in dealing with many of the issues surrounding Vancouver’s sex trade, but that more action is needed to protect all of the city’s sex workers.

Raigen D’Angelo, a transgendered woman, told council about the “incredible work” that is done by agencies like the ones that founded the Mobile Access Project. But, she added, more needs to be done for sex workers in Vancouver.

“If I get raped by a client, I cannot call the Rape Crisis Centre and say ‘hey, I just got raped.’ You know what their answer is? ‘We don’t serve men.’ That has happened to me, and who do you think hurt me more?” D’Angelo said. “There is a whole community that is not represented in the statistics.”

The complexity of the city’s sex trade was also raised by Jamie Lee Hamilton, who reminded council that, “We have young males who are involved, transsexuals, transgendered people like myself, women who are drug addicted.”

“I believe that we can have an environment where sex trade workers are not harmed, but that’s going to take leadership from this council,” Hamilton said. Her sharp eyes panned across the room, resting briefly on each councillor. “You all have to remember that you have to make the streets, communities and neighbourhoods safe for everyone.”

After hearing the sometimes-emotional arguments put forward by speakers, councillors voted unanimously to write to the province requesting that funding for the Mobile Access Project be restored.

Council also passed a motion asking city staff to report back in the fall with recommendations about what can be done to address issues related to sex work in Vancouver.

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