It is incredible when months of meetings, research, legal analysis, strategizing and writing culminate in one historic moment – when the black robes are on and you take the podium to argue before the Supreme Court of Canada. What made this experience even more powerful for me was seeing courageous women, like Sheri Kiselbach and DJ, walk into Canada’s highest court to fight for human rights for sex workers in Canada. It was also such an honour to stand in solidarity with sex workers and allies from across Canada on the steps of the courthouse (in minus 10 degree weather) united in the fight for safety, dignity and equality for all sex workers.
It has been 4 ½ years since I was first asked to represent the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV). SWUAV is a non-profit organization that is run by and for street-based sex workers in the DTES. Their mission is to create social and legal change to improve safety for street-based sex workers. One of SWUAV’s first initiatives was to bring a court challenge to the laws that criminalize adult prostitution – laws that rob sex workers of their ability to live and work under conditions of safety, equality and dignity.
Shortly after SWUAV initiated the case, the amazing Sheri Kiselbach signed on as a second plaintiff. Sheri currently works as the violence prevention coordinator at PACE Society. Prior to working with PACE, Sheri worked in the sex industry for almost 30 years.
Perhaps this is admitting my naiveté, but I was very surprised when, shortly after initiating this action, the Federal Government brought an application to have our clients’ case thrown out for lack of “standing.” Put simply, standing means the legal right to bring a constitutional challenge to legislation. I always knew the government would fight hard to defend the laws, but I did not know they would go so far as to try to deny my clients their day in court. Well, I have learned the hard way that this government is prepared to fight aggressively to stop human rights cases from being heard. So, for the past three years, we have been engaged in an intense fight to defend our clients’ right to challenge these laws. This issue has taken us to the BC Supreme Court, and then to the BC Court of Appeal and, on January 19, 2012, it took us to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The hearing began with the Federal Government’s argument that there is no need to give Sheri and SWUAV the opportunity to challenge the laws because, despite the violence and vulnerabilities that sex workers experience, it is reasonable to expect an individual, active sex worker to come forward.
Then it was our turn. I look forward to sharing the video of the hearing when it is online because it is hard to do justice to the powerful submissions of my co-counsel, Joseph Arvay, when he addressed the nine justices of the Court. I will pause here for a moment to tell you that there is an incredible legal team that have made this case possible – Joe Arvay, Elin Sigurdson, Lisa Glowacki, Lisa Kerr, Kat Kinch and many others. It was also amazing to have my co-workers from Pivot Legal Society there with me.
Joe opened with a powerful description of our clients, the extraordinary violence and discrimination that they face, and the importance of ensuring they have their day in court. He spoke about the need to strike down the prostitution laws, which, for many sex workers in the DTES, is a matter of life and death. He explained that SWUAV brought this case forward in order to protect the privacy and safety of its members, who were not in a position to do so because of their vulnerability and marginalization. Joe described how Sheri could not have brought this complex and controversial litigation forward when she was still involved in sex work.
After Joe’s hour was up, all of the intervenor groups (other than the Ontario government!) argued for a law of standing that provides access to justice for vulnerable people. Their arguments drove home the point that this access to justice issue extends far beyond SWUAV and Sheri, and that this decision will greatly impact their clients which include women, people living with HIV/AIDS, persons with physical and mental disabilities, people living in poverty, children, the environment and many others.
When we left the courthouse, we were met by a crowd of sex workers and allies who rallied on the steps of the courthouse to show their support. It was incredible to walk out into the freezing cold and see a sea of red umbrellas (the symbol for sex workers’ rights), so many good friends and allies, a media scrum waiting for comment, and our clients’ smiling faces. It was a great day for justice, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of the Pivot and Ethos community that made it possible.
PS – Here are a few media stories discussing the case: