Cherry Smiley, is project manager, violence prevention and safety, at the Native Women's Association of Canada and member of the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution
As a country, and as a result of the work of many aboriginal residential school survivors, family members, and advocates, we have come far in recognizing the inherent harm that the Indian Residential Schools have caused. We recognize that the purposes of the institutions themselves were violating, and the processes by which they attempted to achieve their aims resulted in systemic sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, loss of language, culture and identity, and sometimes death. We recognize that these horrific consequences continue to have an impact on lives today, and have left a particularly devastating legacy for aboriginal women and girls.
On Dec. 6, 2014, Canada's new prostitution legislation came into effect. Prostitution survivors, aboriginal women's groups, anti-violence workers, and equality rights advocates and scholars celebrated the decision to criminalize johns, pimps, and third-party advertising for sexual services, and to decriminalize prostituted women in most circumstances. We welcomed the investments in support and exiting services, although much more is still needed. While not quite yet the "Nordic Model" of prostitution policy, we are beginning to move in the direction of equality for all women by working to abolish prostitution.
Some opponents have claimed this new legislation reproduces colonial state violence against aboriginal women and girls by increasing police power. What this analysis fails to recognize is that prostitution is not a traditional activity for aboriginal women and, in fact, is "the world's oldest oppression." It is a system, like Canada's residential school system, that has been imposed on our aboriginal communities. Prostitution is part of the continuum of colonial male violence against aboriginal women and girls, telling us incorrectly that we are disposable in life and that predators can harm us without recourse. The end point of that continuum is the thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, an ongoing massacre that continues to tell us that we are disposable, even in death, with no official inquiry or accountability.
Prostitution, akin to the residential school system, is an institution that continues to have devastating impacts on the lives of aboriginal women and girls, who are disproportionately involved in street-level prostitution. Prostitution is an industry that relies on disparities in power to exist. We can see clearly that women, and especially aboriginal women and girls, are funnelled into prostitution as a result of systemic inequalities such as their lack of access to housing, loss of land, culture, and languages, poverty, high rates of male violence, involvement with the foster care system, suicide, criminalization, addiction, and disability. To imagine that prostitution, a system that feeds these inequalities, should be allowed or encouraged, is dangerously misguided and supports the ongoing systemic harms against our women and girls. In the same ways that those who came before us were funnelled into the residential school system "for our own good," the attempts to now funnel us into the system of prostitution, and to support the rights of pimps and johns, is also being incorrectly portrayed as being for our own benefit and protection.
The Native Women's Association of Canada recognizes that the state has pushed aboriginal women from one institution to another – residential schools, foster and group homes, and prisons – and refuses to accept brothels as the new official institution for aboriginal women and girls. The harm in prostitution comes from the pimps and the johns, and from the messages these men deliver to our women and girls and to non-aboriginal Canadians. Prostitution is harmful in and of itself, and the idea that the location of prostitution makes it more or less so is fundamentally misguided. Imagine if we had applied those ideas to the residential schools, as if they were just in the wrong location and we needed to move them to make them the children "safer"? Imagine if we had decided to simply do a "better" job of regulating those schools, instead of ending the residential school system altogether?
Aboriginal women and girls deserve more than to be violated daily by johns and sold by pimps. What we need are real choices. As prostitution abolitionists, we support the new law but we want more – we want true social change that redefines masculinity as being about partnership, and gives women and girls the unconstrained liberty to be ourselves and live free from exploitation and poverty. We want comprehensive prostitution prevention and exiting strategies, and a robust public education campaign that re-educates Canadians about prostitution as a form of male violence against women and a racist and colonial system that targets racialized and aboriginal women and girls. Supporting the abolition of prostitution and the new legislation stands in agreement with our traditional aboriginal teachings – it tells us that we are worthy of freedom, respect, and love.