On November 23, the St. John’s Status of Women Council (SJSOWC) and its sex worker advocacy program Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) announced they were ending a six year partnership with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC).

The relationship between SHOP and the RNC broke down because the provincial police and feminist advocacy groups disagree about the needs of sex workers in St. John’s and how best to safely meet them. This is rooted in the ongoing criminalization of sex work in Canada—and how police forces engage with people whose very existence is considered a crime.

SHOP’s decision to end the partnership reveals a lot about the challenges sex workers and advocates face in an ongoing struggle against stigma, discrimination and violence. But it also says a lot about the resiliency of sex worker-led organizations that find themselves facing a surge of people seeking supports in the midst of a pandemic.

SHOP’s history is that of a small idea that has grown into a significant community service provider supporting hundreds of current and former sex workers in the province. Yet the group works hard to ensure sex workers remain at the core of decision-making. It was demands for accountability from sex workers and sexual assault survivors that drove the public statement ending the RNC partnership.

SHOP: Small Start, Big Aspirations

SHOP was established in 2013 with seed funding donated by a private individual who was concerned about the lack of supports for women in the sex industry. The oil boom of the early 2010s had sparked a corresponding growth in the province’s sex industry. Lobbying government to do something had failed to produce any response. Out of frustration the individual offered funding to the SJSOWC with the ask that they “create something.”

What they created was SHOP—a program designed to be flexible, adaptive, driven by community members, and with low barriers to access. Unlike other provincial programs, it didn’t require an application, IDs or a referral. It didn’t involve a waiting list. All it required to access services was a phone call.

When SHOP was established in October of 2013, it had one part-time position. Two years later, with connections to over 100 current and former sex workers accessing its services, the group started receiving provincial government funding and was able to increase its staff base to two full-time positions: a coordinator and an outreach position.

Heather Jarvis was the activist hired in 2015 into the outreach position. Today the group has connected with over 700 current and former sex workers, and Jarvis has moved into the coordinator role. She says it’s hard to give a succinct answer to the question ‘What does SHOP do?’ because the nature of their work is so varied depending on the needs of their community at any given time.

“SHOP is this really incredible, unique program because we’re so flexible and adaptive to what our communities need,” Jarvis told the Independent. “Every day we’re meeting people where they’re at—on the street, across the city, outside the city, in shelters, in food banks, in health care appointments, in the court system. We visit the prison. We accompany people to appointments when they are scared and intimidated. The systems are bureaucratic and complicated, and we advocate for people while we’re with them.”

She says the work might involve accompanying people to funerals, or providing support in their homes if they’re trying to make changes in their lives. They’ve organized book launches, clothing swaps, film screenings, and community meals. They help promote members’ art, as well as meet material needs like provision of safer sex supplies and harm reduction equipment.

Thinking Long-term

Jarvis says one of the big changes she’s seen over time is that with the addition of provincial funding they’ve been able to expand capacity and focus on fostering long-term relationships with people.

“There are people the program has known for seven years, the entire life of the program,” she explained. “Those long relationships are important, but we’ve also been able to build capacity in our community to do really incredible advocacy together.”

While provincial funding has enabled SHOP to provide a broader range of long-term supports, one of the challenges they share with other community organizations is the way most non-profits receive single year funding from government. In other jurisdictions, says Jarvis, community groups typically receive multi-year support. In 2018 the provincial government began offering multi-year funding to a select group of community agencies on a trial basis, but SHOP was not among those chosen for the trial.

“That means your work is really up in the air a lot of the time. You don’t have the same security.”

SHOP’s emphasis on ensuring low-barrier access has been a key to their success, says Jarvis. They don’t require IDs or official referrals, and they don’t put people on wait lists. They don’t require sobriety in order to access the group’s services, which she says is deeply important in ensuring supports are accessible to people struggling with alcohol or drug addictions.

“Sometimes the best version of somebody is showing up when they are doing the best they can that day against their addiction, even if that means they’re under the influence of something,” Jarvis explained. “We purposefully have always created this program to say you don’t need to give us your personal story to access basic services. We are very low-barrier. We are really adaptive.”S

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges SHOP faces, as it has with other community groups. It has also dramatically increased the numbers of sex workers accessing supports—over 100 new people have sought out the group’s services since the pandemic began.

Jarvis says they’ve been working overtime trying to secure additional funding as well as food to meet the surge in demand. SHOP received some funding from both United Way and Food First NL, and was able to add a temporary part-time position to help with the additional work. (The team currently consists of Jarvis as coordinator, with Amelia Reimer and Michelle Gushue doing outreach work.) They used the additional supports to put together food hampers as well as a sex worker relief fund, given the fact that most sex workers were excluded from federal government supports like CERB. But Jarvis says the surge in demand underscores the urgent need for an increase in funding and the provision of sustainable multi-year funding.

Fierce Advocates

A big challenge for community groups, according to Jarvis, is the way a lot of organizations reliant on government funding have either willingly or unwillingly had advocacy removed from their mandates. This creates internal pressure on groups to avoid advocacy that might be deemed critical of government, out of fear they might lose their funding—a problem amplified by the precarity of single-year funding. Criticism and advocacy work is integral to bringing about policy and structural change, and it’s something SHOP continues to hold dear.

“We fiercely hold on to advocacy as a pillar of the work we do,” Jarvis told the Independent. “That means we name systemic oppression. Structural barriers. Discrimination. Stigma embedded into systems. That does put us sometimes in conflict with agencies, with institutions, with governments, with other members of our community who think that the best way forward is to not engage in advocacy, and uphold an idea of neutrality. We fiercely believe that if the status quo is violence, and inequitable, and discriminatory, staying neutral is simply upholding that.”

“That is probably the hardest work we do,” she continued. “SHOP has gotten a reputation, for better or worse, to have a fierce kind of advocacy. We really go to bat for the community that we are a part of and we serve.”

“Sometimes this puts us in a position that’s deemed controversial. But that’s what sex workers around the world take up every day.”

Changing the Culture of Policing

SHOP’s RNC liaison partnership was launched in 2014 amid lofty hopes.

“We were hearing from participants within the SHOP program that they were having negative experiences in trying to access the police, so we were looking to mediate that and try to reduce harm through this partnership,” Laura Winters, Executive Director with the SJSOWC, explained to the Independent. “Unfortunately we don’t feel that that happened over the years that the partnership was in place.”

Winters was the first coordinator of SHOP, and the one who reached out to establish the partnership.

“Sex workers were experiencing judgement, victim blaming, invasive questions when reporting violence. We were hearing that from quite a lot of people, so we knew it was a pretty pervasive issue. As well as generally not feeling safe when accessing police.”

Winters said the hope had been that they could facilitate a shift in the culture of policing, by introducing values around harm reduction and a human rights-based approach to supporting sex workers.

“We hoped… that the RNC would make some of those shifts, and incorporate those values into their own practices. Unfortunately that did not transpire.”

Winters emphasizes that it’s not a critique of individual officers, but rather a reflection of the need for structural and cultural change at the RNC.

“Like any broken system, there’s good people that work within it,” Winters said. “But really this is about the fact that the system is not serving people engaged in sex work well, in a way that meets their needs or creates trust or safety for them. There’s a need for internal cultural change in policing to shift that.”

“Asking for cultural change is a big piece of work,” she conceded. “But we’re hearing about this from the community that we serve. We can’t continue to be in this partnership when we’re spending a massive amount of time and effort on it with a very small and underfunded staff team. All that effort has not been reciprocated or resulted in improved conditions for the people that we serve.”

Winters says that over the past six years they made numerous efforts to kickstart the partnership with the RNC—offering training, requesting meetings, providing opportunities to collaborate, sharing recommendations.

“I think for us one of the most problematic things was that we were engaging people in the sex industry and they were offering their time and their expertise, and we were bringing that forward to the RNC, and not getting a response. Having to go back to the community and say ‘no response here’ really wasn’t acceptable for us,” Winters explained. “It was such a wonderful opportunity for the police to be able to hear directly from people who work in the sex industry about how best they can be engaged by the RNC. To not have appropriate response to that was really disheartening and a really big part of this decision.”

Winters says that the RNC is fundamentally at odds with women-serving organizations like the SJSOWC and SHOP in terms of how to engage with sex workers.

“The mandate of the RNC is to uphold a criminal justice system that does not do well in supporting survivors,” she said. “Part of it is the criminalization of sex work, but even when sex work is criminalized we think that there are things the police can do to try to integrate more harm reduction and person-centred approaches to working with folks. That’s why we engaged in this partnership in the first place. Unfortunately we just didn’t see movement in the direction we needed.”

“The change needs to be in the policing culture. Sex workers are one example of people who are not well served by the criminal justice system in general but by the police more specifically,” she continued. “There’s been a lot of talk about this in our community lately. Especially with the Snelgrove trial there’s a recognition that the criminal justice system does not serve survivors well, and there’s changes that need to come about.”

“The first thing that needs to happen is a recognition of the need for change. And we really hope that that’s what this public statement brings about with the RNC.”

When contacted by The Independent for this story, the RNC declined a request for an interview. They submitted the following statement on behalf of Chief Joe Boland: “The RNC is entirely committed to protecting vulnerable people, and will continue our work with community partners to identify best practices. Our dedicated officers work hard every day to build relationships and break down barriers related to complex issues in our communities. The RNC will remain focused on providing a service which maintains the public trust and confidence that is crucial to promoting safe and healthy communities.”

Disappointing but not surprising”

El Jones is a professor and community activist based in Nova Scotia who has worked extensively with populations impacted by police violence. She’s not surprised to hear of the SHOP-RNC partnership ending.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” Jones told the Independent. “It’s disappointing because obviously these organizations did a lot of work to reach out to try and build partnerships that would keep the most vulnerable women in society safe, which is women who are stigmatized due to sex work. Women often do survival sex work, there are many reasons that women may be involved in that. We know that women, particularly in street-based sex work, are vulnerable to violence. We also know that criminalizing those women has done nothing to keep women safe, and that what keeps women safe is making sure that those resources are available, that women are not criminalized, that they can feel that they can go for help.”

“What’s disappointing and not surprising is that we see this pattern where the police have been unable to actually provide a service, and instead always default to harm.”

The past year has witnessed a tremendous outpouring of protests against police violence across North America, as well as calls for structural change including changes to police funding. In September 2020, Jones was appointed by the Halifax Police Board of Commissioners to head up a committee that will “recommend a definition of defunding the police and investments to support communities and public safety.”

Jones says that the difficult relationship groups like SHOP have had with the RNC underscores the need to take a long hard look at how communities can most effectively use funds and resources to improve safety for everyone.

“This is exactly what we talk about when we talk about the need to put these tasks in the hands of community,” she explained. “We’re often told we need police to solve gender-based violence. What do you do if we didn’t have police? [People say] rapists would be walking around. But then we see that in situations where women are actually victimized by violence, the police are no help. So we’re supposed to need the police because they’ll solve gender-based violence, but yet when women are trying to report bad tricks or try and forge a relationship with the police to get care or try and share information to keep women safe, we see that’s not happening.”

“It demonstrates that the police do not actually work to keep communities safe,” Jones continued. “They don’t keep vulnerable people safe and they don’t keep victims safe. What does keep people safe would be resourcing organizations like SHOP to be able to do that work which the police shouldn’t be involved in. With that money that we’re putting into policing—who don’t know how to do this job—we could be doing a lot more to keep people safe.”

“When we talk about people living in homelessness, they need housing! They don’t need the police to show up at the homeless encampment. They need housing!”

“We need to be providing those resources without moral judgement, without imposing a policing response, without criminalizing things that are health care issues or social issues or safety issues,” Jones explained. “As we see, that is never going to be accomplished by the police, they’re just not built for that. That’s not what they do.”

“It’s not a personal critique of the [Royal Newfoundland Constabulary]. It’s a critique of any model that uses policing on social problems. The idea that we continue to turn to policing to solve problems that can be solved in our communities is exactly the issue. It doesn’t matter which police force, it doesn’t matter which cops. I’m not targeting personally any of the officers. They can have all sorts of good intentions, they can be wonderful. But that’s not the point. The point is it’s not appropriate to resource them in that way. They’re not carers. That is not their job.”

Sex Work Law Reform Requires All Levels of Government

Jarvis, Winters and Jones all point out that a critical factor in improving the safety of sex workers is the need for decriminalization of sex work.

Jenn Clamen is National Coordinator with the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. The umbrella organization of 28 sex worker rights groups from around the country was formed in 2012 to advocate for reform to the various laws and policies that regulate sex work.

While Clamen emphasizes that local organizations make their own decisions about whether or not to form relationships with the police based on local considerations, she’s also not surprised by news of the SHOP-RNC partnership unraveling.

“I’m not surprised that the relationships between law enforcement and sex worker rights groups are strained,” Clamen told the Independent. “As long as the mandate of the police is criminalization of sex work then they can’t actually put sex worker safety first and they can’t actually put sex workers’ needs first. Their mandate is literally to end sex work. And there’s a very slippery slope between ending sex work and ending sex workers.”

“What’s very unfortunate is that a lot of law enforcement are sending messages that they want partnerships, they’re using the language of care and they’re using the language of protection, and they’re using a language of community, and they really don’t have any business using any of that language,” she continued. “It suggests that there’s an openness there to change a perspective. [But] unless the police are calling for decriminalization of sex work and unless police are recognizing that the laws that they are upholding are problematic, then there can’t really be a true collaboration.”

“Because sex work itself is criminalized, and because sex workers are criminalized, the relationship that sex workers have with police is very difficult,” Clamen said. “Sex workers don’t feel comfortable accessing police or going to police or reporting crimes against them. That is a common experience regardless of whether groups like SHOP try really hard to facilitate it.”

“As long as sex work is criminalized then the authorities [have] a mandate to see and treat sex workers as criminals. As long as that framework is being used, police and law enforcement can’t actually have the safety of sex workers as a first priority in their minds.”

Decriminalization of sex work involves the dismantling of a set of policies embedded in the Canadian legal system which collectively impact the lives of sex workers in negative ways. After consultation with dozens of affiliate groups around the country, in 2017 the Alliance produced a report outlining 45 recommendations for law reform—a sort of blueprint for any government willing to take on the job. Ultimately it’s a task that will involve all three levels of government, says Clamen.

“A holistic vision of decriminalization is about cooperation between jurisdictions of federal, provincial and sometimes municipal governments,” she explained. “The first step would be to remove all the laws at the federal level, which are the laws in the Criminal Code around sex work, plus there’s an immigration provision which prevents migrant sex workers from working in the sex industry. The first step would be to remove that and the next step would be to look at provincial frameworks like occupational health and safety frameworks and employment frameworks, youth protection frameworks, public health. And then you’ve got to look at housing and education and policing. All of that together is really the way we understand decriminalization… but a first step is most definitely to remove criminal laws.”

According to Clamen, the federal Liberal government’s record on sex work law reform has been “horrible.” At the 2018 Liberal Party convention a resolution was adopted by delegates in support of decriminalizing sex work. It was brought forward by the Young Liberals and delegates endorsed it as one of the party’s top five priorities. In 2019, over 150 community organizations across the country published a statement calling on the Liberal government to move forward on decriminalizing sex work.

No action has yet been taken.

When the Conservative government passed Bill C-36 which altered the regulatory framework around sex work, the Liberals opposed the legislation on the basis that it would not improve or protect the lives of sex workers. But while that legislation contained a clause requiring a mandatory review of the laws five years later (2019), the Liberals have failed to act on it.

“They’ve been doing a lot of chatter and they were supposed to do this review before Covid, so Covid is not an excuse not to have done it,” Clamen explained—noting that sex workers have also been excluded from federal Liberal Covid relief efforts like CERB. “They haven’t been in any way putting sex workers’ needs at the forefront, and they’ve very much dropped the ball, in much the same way that they’ve dropped the ball around the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Inquiry and in much the same way they’ve dropped the ball on issues for marginalized communities who experience violence in this country.”

Battling Stigma

Jarvis observes that criminalization and stigma work hand in hand, and they’re rooted in stereotypes and misinformation that need to be tackled at a broad community level. The lack of action on decriminalization doesn’t help matters.

“The stigma against sex workers is still rampant, unfortunately,” Jarvis explained. “Not only in St. John’s and in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Canada, but around the world. For so long sex workers have been portrayed in ways that suggest these are the people of our communities who are disposable. That they are a nuisance, that they are criminals, and that we don’t actually need to care about what sex workers experience or what they say. We see the stigma play out in violence and discrimination in housing, in accessing basic services, in getting health care, in the criminalization of sex workers with law enforcement and in prison institutions. We see it on every single front.”

El Jones notes the lack of responsiveness from the RNC over the years is revealing in terms of the stigma sex workers still experience in society.

“In some sense the question isn’t even around police and what the police are doing,” Jones said. “It’s a more broad social question. Why is sex work stigmatized? Obviously because of our attitudes about sex, obviously because often these women come from vulnerable populations – Indigenous women, women living in poverty, women with disabilities, trans women, people others are uncomfortable with. And whenever people feel this threat around stigmatized populations, that’s when people say ‘Well we need the police, because I don’t want that person standing on the corner in my neighbourhood.’ You get that kind of response. Policing also reflects those social attitudes. So it’s not just a question of training a couple of police officers. It requires this shift.”

“Those attitudes are about who we see as fully human, who we see as worthy of life and well-being and respect, who we see as a threat and a danger to society, and we have to fight those attitudes. And those attitudes aren’t going to be fought by saying those people need to be policed and controlled. That’s what needs to change. So I don’t think it’s a question of reforming a couple of police policies. This is why we need to give resources to communities, to fight those attitudes.”

“Why do we call the police because a homeless person is begging outside of a business? Why do we think that needs to happen? Why do we call police because there’s a woman on the corner? Why do we have that narrative?”

To Partner or Not to Partner

The decision to publicly end the RNC partnership draws attention to an issuing facing community groups more broadly: the question of whether public partnerships that exist in name only can serve a purpose or can actually be counter-productive to the tasks community organizations face.

“It felt like a fallacy to say we had a partnership when it’s not a partnership because it’s not reciprocal,” Winters told the Independent. “I think it was misrepresenting the reality and once we came to that [realization], we were hearing it from sex workers and we stand with sex workers and so we needed to do this. We’re hearing sex workers say they desire change, we were not accomplishing it through this partnership, and so now this is about accountability. We really think accountability is the first step toward the changes that need to happen. We owe it to the people that we serve to stand with them and say this is not good enough, they deserve better.”

“We’ve put in such a massive effort, we have nothing left to offer. We need [the RNC] to think about what needs to happen to build trust with some of the most marginalized members of our community,” she continued. “At this point this is not about having a sensitivity training and the work being done. Not at all. What we would need first are really clear commitments on how the RNC thinks it can work toward rebuilding trust with sex workers. Training is wonderful but it’s not effective at fixing the kind of problems that we’re talking about here.”

Winters acknowledged that some people might be critical of their decision. But she says they’ve received an overwhelmingly positive response from women in the community—not just sex workers, but also sexual assault survivors who feel the statement reflected their own experiences dealing with the RNC.

Winters says their organizations remain open to engaging with the RNC in future. But the RNC will have to work on building trust and demonstrate its commitment to the process.

“We remain committed to working collaboratively with the RNC in the future, but we really hope that they can come to us and propose concrete plans and clear commitments around what they think needs to happen on their end to rebuild that trust,” she said. “We hope that the response of the RNC is not one of defensiveness. We hope that they see this as an opportunity to step back and reflect and do that internal work that needs to happen toward cultural change and the internal conversations that need to happen. We hope that’s what they’ll engage in.”

El Jones acknowledges that community organizations face a difficult dilemma in deciding whether to partner with the police, and that some may worry that failing to proactively engage the police might make them targets for police retaliation or harassment. But she points out there are other models community groups can look toward when it comes to keeping people safe.

“What is successful? Peer support for people is successful. There’s many models of that. Running cop-free mental health interventions—there’s models for that. The police don’t need to be involved. Psychiatric nurses are constantly dealing with people that may enter crisis [and] they do so without violence. The way that the police respond to those situations is usually to escalate and often people are reacting because of the police. The reason why confrontations escalate is because people are scared, and because they have a relationship of trauma with the police and because there’s no one there to counsel them and talk to them. Often when a crisis is happening there’s been many points before that where a person needed help and did not receive it. Because there weren’t resources. So by the time they’re in crisis there’s been many many chances missed. We need to be resourcing people before they’re in crisis.”

“We need to listen to sex workers,” Jones emphasized. “Sex workers work that job, they know what they need, they know what keeps them safe, they know what protects them. Too often there’s a saviour response, that we need to save these women. We need to understand that drug users, sex workers, people that are living in these situations and have lived in these situations are the ones that know best what is needed. And the solutions should be centred in them. Because coming from the outside and imposing solutions on people just does not work and it’s another form of authority and force.”

For her part, Clamen notes that the fact SHOP made the decision to end the partnership reveals an organization that is responsive and adaptable to its members’ needs, and that’s an important sign of good health for a community organization.

“What’s really great is that SHOP has reached this stage of saying ‘We’re informed from our community that this isn’t working.’ They built that connection with community, and they built a community, and the community was like ‘Hey we need to cut that relation with law enforcement.’ So SHOP has been extremely successful in that effort to be able to get to the heart of what sex workers want.”

“What sex workers across the country want is law enforcement out of their lives. The problem is that sex workers are oversurveilled and they’re underprotected.”

Winters agrees.

“I do think that the police are, as a system, accountable to the people they serve, and that that includes—in fact, should prioritize—the most marginalized members. And I would say there’s no one experiencing more stigma and who are more marginalized than people engaged in sex work.”

“Sometimes police might think that their increased presence is helpful, and what we are hearing from women in the industry is no, that’s harmful. Even well-intentioned initiatives, when they are not founded on listening to the voices of people engaged in sex work, can have really negative outcomes. I think that’s really what we’ve seen in this province.”

For activists like Jarvis, the end of the RNC partnership is not so much a step backward as it is a step forward—in asserting the demand for accountability from police, and in acknowledging the insights and expectations of a vibrant and determined movement. It’s the growth of that movement which sustains her hope in the face of challenges.

“I think the thing that’s really important to recognize is that over the last number of decades there is something we can now identify as a sex workers’ rights movement,” Jarvis concluded. “For decades now around the world we have had sex workers create their own programs, their own projects, do their own writing, their own advocacy, and that is leading the way. So now we have a movement internationally, and in Canada, of sex workers fighting for their rights. And that has created a much stronger discussion. You can’t speak for sex workers any more because our voice is so readily available.”

“We need to keep recognizing that sex workers are still here, having their own voice, shaping the conversation and defining what it is that we need.”

Photo via SHOP.

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Rhea Rollmann is an award-winning journalist, writer and radio producer/podcaster based in St. John’s, NL. She’s a founding editor of TheIndependent.ca, and a contributing editor with PopMatters.com. Her writing has appeared in a range of popular and academic publications, including Briarpatch, CCPA Monitor, rabble.ca, Canadian Theatre Review, Journal of Gender Studies, and more. She was the recipient of an Atlantic Journalism Gold Award in 2017, and finalist for a Canadian Association of Journalism Award in 2018. She also has a background in labour organizing, and queer and trans activism. She is presently Program Director at CHMR-FM, a community radio station in St. John’s, NL.