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Expulsion of Sex Workers from Vancouver's West End

Becki L. Ross

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Sex Work and the City: Repulsion, Desire and Resilience in 1984

West End Sex Workers Memorial, Vancouver, 2016. Photo: Ine Beljaars.

Vancouver, British Columbia is a settler-colonial port city with a long, rich history of sexual commerce. For over 150 years, indoor sex work has transpired in brothels, massage parlours, steambaths, nightclubs, apartments, and hotels; outdoor work has been conducted on and around strolls in Chinatown; the Downtown Eastside; Georgia, Seymour and Richards Streets; and in the city’s West End. Never evading contest, sex work—workers, working conditions and clients—have been the subjects of intense socio-legal debates, policy initiatives, and policing practices. In particular, sellers of sexual services have been aggressively scapegoated, criminalized and dehumanized; at the same time, activist sex workers have leveraged moxie, courage and wisdom to push back against violent regulatory regimes designed to eradicate them.

On July 4, 1984, Allan McEachern, chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, ruled that sex workers on the West End’s Davie Street stroll were a “blatant, aggressive and disorderly public nuisance.” He chastised those who “defiled our city” by “taking over the streets and sidewalks for the purpose of prostitution.” To remedy what he called an “urban tragedy,” McEachern banned sex workers, cis and trans, BIPOC and white, from living and working in the West End. McEachern’s ruling was championed by then-mayor Mike Harcourt, attorney general Brian Smith and Pat Carney, member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre. Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE), led by Gordon Price, and the vigilante posse Shame the Johns were elated about the purge of a “de facto red-light district.” Civic officials and moral entrepreneurs, keen to “cleanse” and “whiten” the city on the cusp of hosting Expo 86, celebrated an end to their “war on hookers.”

For the estimated 200 sex workers targeted in this act of domestic terrorism, the Supreme Court ruling in 1984 was a crushing blow. According to the late Métis Cree trans sex worker and whorganizer Jamie Lee Hamilton, the densely-populated West End was where racialized, white and gender-diverse residents built their “outdoor brothel culture” dating back to the 1960s. Here, they nurtured stable friendships, a clientele, community networks, and economic capacity as independent, pimp-free contractors with rent-controlled housing. Sharing apartments, working in pairs and recording clients’ licence plates, they protected each other through strategies of risk assessment, safety planning and harm reduction. The Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (ASP), led by Marie Arrington and Sally deQuadros, sounded the alarm about “bad tricks,” cruel police, the need for worker-run cooperatives, and the (illegal) collection of $28,000 in fines for “street soliciting” in the early 1980s. Torn from their moorings in the West End, sex workers were expelled east of Granville Street, then to the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood and finally to what became known as the “killings fields” of the city’s industrial East End.

To commemorate the mass expulsion in 1984, and to stand as a bulwark against all forms of poisonous whorephobia, Jamie Lee Hamilton and I co-founded the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee in 2008. After eight years of negotiation for reparations from the City of Vancouver, in 2016 we oversaw the installation of a majestic lamppost with red light and bronze plaques at the corner of Jervis and Pendrell Streets. While this monument alone does not prevent future atrocities, it is a powerful testament to the unrepentant “hoes and hustlers” who fought for, and continue to fight for, the destigmatization and decriminalization of their labour. In the broad context of systemic misogyny, racism, class inequality, and transphobia, activist sex workers have always demanded respect, recognition and rights as sex educators, mobilizers and innovators. In 2023, who is listening? And to what ends?

Becki L. Ross

Becki L. Ross is a long-time academic-activist in social movements, including feminist activism, Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ liberation, trans rights, sex workers’ sovereignty, and reproductive justice. Born in Sudbury, Ontario, Becki dedicated almost thirty years to feminist, queer, anti-colonial teaching and research in Sociology and the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice (GRSJ) at the University of British Columbia. A prize-winning teacher and writer, Becki wrote The House That Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation (1995) and Burlesque West: showgirls, sex, and sin in Postwar Vancouver (2009). Becki’s published research appears in BC Studies, The Journal of Women’s History, Canadian Theatre Review, Sexualities, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, Labour/le travail, and The Conversation. In 2008, with the late Métis Cree trans sex worker and advocate, Jamie Lee Hamilton, Becki co-founded the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee. After eight years of meetings, project development, and coordination with the City of Vancouver, we installed our Memorial lamppost and bronze plaques to honour sex workers who were violently expelled from the West End in 1984. Officially retired in July 2023, Becki is grateful for time and energy to nurture friendship, embrace competitive golf, write, read, garden, cook, curl, and play pickleball.