On Dec 10, exactly a week before the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, Ottawa Police Chief Vern White made a statement warning local sex workers to be especially vigilant about their safety due to “a pattern in homicides” currently being investigated by Ottawa Police Service (OPS).
White said there is a connection linking the homicides.
“We won’t talk about the number today except to say that there is more than one,” he said. “Today, it is about getting out early and getting a message out to the community — in particular, those most vulnerable.”
Acting chief Charles Bordeleau has since confirmed the investigation centres on the unsolved murders of six sex workers in Ottawa over the last 21 years.
“The pattern that has been established is around homicides of women involved in the sex trade in the street,” says Bordeleau, noting that OPS will not release the names of the murder victims out of respect for their families. He confirmed that more than one of the six murders is recent. “We have some recent ones, yes. There are recent investigations that fall within the six.”
Local advocates for sex workers’ rights have thanked OPS officers for their transparency at the same time as they question OPS tactics.
“I believe it's a good thing that this information was shared. We are well aware of what happened in Toronto with the Jane Doe case and in Vancouver with [Robert] Pickton, when police had information about a potential predator but didn't pursue it or share it,” says Frédérique Chabot, a member of Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (POWER) and the co-author of the research report "Challenges: Ottawa Area Sex Workers Speak Out." “That said, police are still targeting and charging sex workers. Trying to avoid arrest means not assessing clients, just jumping in cars, not working in pairs to avoid attracting attention, working in isolated areas.”
Ottawa police have been conducting regular street sweeps that target sex workers and johns.
Lara Purvis (left) and Frédérique Chabot hold POWER's banner.
“We have a role with respect to enforcing the law, but we have to ensure that there’s a balance that we achieve here between community concerns, law enforcement and the safety of the public,” Bordeleau says. “We will always try and achieve that balance.”
At the press conference, White refused to comment about requests for more specific information about who is being targeted in the murders. He chose Minwaashin Lodge — a violence prevention and support centre that provides services to abused aboriginal women and children — as the venue for his press conference.
“Our main goal right now is to work in partnership with Minwaashin Lodge and the Salvation Army to ensure that we conduct a full-scale outreach initiative to speak to all our women in our community that are involved in the sex trade industry,” says Bordeleau. “We’ve been doing that for the past week. There are no suspects at this point.”
News about violence against local sex workers has been prominent since 2006, when Kelly Morrisseau, 27, was found dead in a parking lot near Gatineau Park. Jennifer Stewart, 36, was found dead in a Vanier-area parking lot in 2010. Leeann Lawson was murdered in September 2011. She was found in a Lower Town parking lot.
Sergeant Frank D’Aoust, who has been involved in street-sweep operations, confirmed in an earlier interview with Xtra that violence against sex workers this year includes some attempted murders. It is not clear, however, if these attempted murders are connected.
Police say they will be conducting safety patrols in neighbourhoods sex workers commonly work in light of the investigations. White advises workers to keep an eye on each other, avoid working in isolated areas and stick to regular clients they know and trust. He also urges sex workers to report any violent or suspicious behaviour to the police.
But Chabot believes sex workers face too many barriers for this request to be realistic.
“There are still issues with sex workers safely accessing police services,” Chabot says. “This has not been addressed and, in the context of this predator targeting them, this is a gigantic concern. They are not considered reliable witnesses. They fear arrest or harassment if they disclose their occupation and do not have a trusting relationship with the police due to police conduct, police messaging and criminalization. Their concerns are often brushed off, and the criminal justice system often attacks their character if they go forward with a claim.”
Bordeleau says that’s why OPS is working with community partners on this initiative.
“We want to make sure that they report any bad dates or suspicious incidents or persons to the police immediately,” Bordeleau says. “Recognizing that they don’t all have a trusting relationship with the police service, they can report that to Minwaashin Lodge or the Salvation Army or any of the workers that do outreach.”
POWER members and their allies will be staging a vigil on Parliament Hill to mark the ninth annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, to speak out about violence against sex workers and acknowledge the dangers of criminalizing sex work.
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
Vigil on Parliament Hill
Sat, Dec 17, 2–3pm