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O Canada! Will You Free Your Glorious Land of Prostitution?

[Taine Bien-Aime, Executive Director of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW), in The Huffington Post, 30 April 2014] A daughter of the First Nation Ojibwe, Bridget Perrier was born in Long Lake #58 in Northern Ontario. Given up by parents unable to care for her, Bridget was placed in a welcoming home with five other children. In that house, a family friend raped Bridget. Her behavior subsequently became so disruptive that a social worker counseled her foster family to send her to a group home. There, sexual abuse took another form: many of the girls were lured into prostitution. Soon after her arrival, Bridget was sold to shipmen docking in the port city of Thunder Bay. Bridget was 12 years old.

Bridget’s story echoes that of millions of other prostituted women around the world. Trafficked into the sex trade as children by pimps disguised as boyfriends or caregivers promising affection, food, shelter or a far-away modeling gig, these highly vulnerable kids are pushed into strip clubs, massage parlors, brothels or the streets. Bridget was bought and sold for a decade.

Contrary to our beliefs about prostitution and choice, these sex-trafficked children do not turn into "consenting adults" on that magical eighteenth birthday, nor does the sexual exploitation become sanitized "sex work," a term masking and normalizing sex trade brutalities.

"Prostitution is not a choice; it chose me," says Bridget, now 37 and a co-founder of Sextrade 101, a survivor-led organization that works with prostituted women in Canada. "I’ve been off the streets for 16 years. If it was so consensual and healthy, why is my trauma still so deep?"

Last December, the Ontario Supreme Court struck down three provisions of Canada’s prostitution-related offenses, including brothel-keeping and living on the avails of prostitution. Three plaintiffs — one, previously convicted for managing an escort service and another, aspiring to operate a brothel — challenged the pimping and "bawdy house" laws, asserting that legalization would alleviate the violence women face in prostitution.

The Court gave the Canadian Parliament 12 months to rewrite the laws deemed unconstitutional and in violation of the principles of "life, liberty and the security of the person."

"Prostitution is not inevitable; it is male violence, power and control over the female body, fueled by organized crime, drug dealers, pimps and buyers," says Natasha Falle, who founded Sextrade101 in 2007. "With an average age of entry at 13, it is the sex trade that robs us of our life and security."

Canada is now debating which of the three main legal frameworks to adopt: total criminalization of buying and selling commercial sex; decriminalization of the entire commercial sex industry, also described as legalization; or the "Nordic Model" a set of laws first enacted in Sweden that only decriminalizes prostituted individuals, deemed victims of violence and discrimination. Recognizing that purchasers of sex fuel the demand for prostitution, and ultimately sex trafficking, the "Nordic Model" instead penalizes the clients.

The Court decision also stated that women are safer in brothels than on the streets — another myth Natasha and Bridget want dispelled.

"I was sold in both locations. All the men who purchased me acted like they owned me and did not care if a receptionist sat downstairs or not," explains Natasha. "Plus, my pimp-boyfriend felt he could control me better in a brothel."

This sentiment about sex-establishments is ironically echoed by one appellant in the Canadian Supreme Court decision who acknowledges that indoor clients often felt entitled not to wear condoms.

National and international women’s rights groups, many of which are survivor-led, as well as some police officers, are calling on Canada to adopt the "Nordic Model" which recognizes prostitution as an industry of violence and raises awareness about male sexual privilege.

Since its implementation, the Swedish government reported a decrease in street prostitution and sex trafficking. A strong law combating demand for commercial sex must also provide meaningful exit strategies for those ready to leave the sex trade. France, Ireland and Northern Ireland intend to pass legislation reflecting this model, hoping for the same results. On the other end of the spectrum, governments that have legalized prostitution, such as The Netherlands and Germany, are struggling with the escalation of violence and sex trafficking. Legalization is a green light that transforms red-light districts into playgrounds for buyers, pimps and organized crime.

And then there is the issue of race. Bridget explains that no word for prostitution exists in the First Nations language. Indigenous women, she says, were sacred water carriers and preservers of life.

Native Canadians today range between 1-7 percent of the country’s total population. In one survey, of the prostituted women interviewed, 52 percent were First Nation and 90 percent of sex-trafficked teens were Aboriginal.

Canada has at its fingertips a growing survivor movement calling for the "Nordic Model." These trailblazers are courageously debunking the assertions that legalizing prostitution promises safety and empowerment for women.

Canada must also acknowledge that gender inequality, race, incest and histories of oppression are the pillars of the sex trade, including prostitution. Bridget and Natasha remind us that the multi-billion dollar industry that stole so much of their lives must not be a destiny for the vulnerable underclass: the disenfranchised, the abused, the marginalized and, in Canada, the First Nations’ daughters.

"We have endured genocide and now if they legalize prostitution, they will rubber-stamp commercial rape and continued desecration," Bridget said. "As Aboriginal women and as women of color, the time is now to take our lives back from those who exploit us and colonize our bodies."

O Canada! Do the right thing.

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