Parliamentary Presentation on Prostitution

For many years, women were going missing from Canada's poorest neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, but because most were marginalized citizens, politicians and police were mostly indifferent to the growing numbers of missing. There were rumours and strong indications that a serial killer was at work, and appeals by advocacy groups to look into those claims, yet those concerns were constantly dismissed by the policing 'experts' who knew better. Sloppy police work and infighting between police departments also contributed to the failure to catch a serial killer, whose killing spree could have been ended sooner if the police did their job properly. In 2002, Robert Picton was finally arrested and charged with murder, though he could have easily been caught sooner. In December 2007, serial killer Robert Picton was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of six women, though there is evidence that he killed many more women than that. 
I wrote this blog article, "Sexual harassment in the RCMP and the failure to catch a serial killer", on the subject, and have added media accounts of the case, as well as articles detailing the follow up Commission of Inquiry, to the comments section of that article. 
On September 27, 2010, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was established.  One of its Terms of Reference was to:

a) inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the conduct of the investigations conducted between January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002, by police forces in British Columbia respecting women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside of the city of Vancouver
As part of its Inquiry, the Commission called for public input and submissions regarding any of the issues it was investigating. In 1998, I moved to a neighbourhood that was infamous at the time as Vancouver's "kiddy stroll" where minor  girls were exploited as prostitutes. I lived and worked in the area where women were disappearing during the Commission's terms of reference time frame. After hearing some of the excuses made by the police at the Commission of Inquiry, I decided to  provide the following submission to the Commission as it deals directly with some of the policing issues I dealt with personally as a citizen advocate for street prostitutes and drug addicts. 

On March 30, 2005 I made the following presentation to a Parliamentary committee that was holding public hearings across Canada on the issue of prostitution. 
Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws of the Standing Committee on Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Chair: We're ready to start again. The routine will be roughly seven to ten minutes for a presentation to us, then roughly seven-minute rounds of questioning by members of our panel. Then we'll go to three-minute rounds within the time we have before we have to adjourn.
    I'd ask Perry Bulwer to start the proceedings.
    Mr. Perry Bulwer (As an Individual): Thank you for inviting me to attend these very important hearings. I'm going to read my presentation so that I make sure I stick within my time limit.
    My name is Perry Bulwer. I'm a member of the Law Society of B.C., though I'm appearing on my own behalf.
    I'd first like to say I've read through all the transcripts of the hearings up to date and I don't envy you the difficult task of sorting through what at times is somewhat contradictory evidence. I'm just going to give you a brief outline of how I got involved with this issue in my own neighbourhood. I hope you have some questions on some of the details.
    First I should describe where I live to help give you a mental picture of my neighbourhood. I live on the east side of Vancouver. You're probably familiar with the downtown east side. Moving eastward from there is a stretch of approximately 15 to 20 blocks of an industrial area that borders the Port of Vancouver. A lot of street prostitution occurs in that area. My apartment is situated at the very eastern boundary, on the first block of the residential area. My living room windows overlook about a two-block stretch of Semlin Drive.
    Semlin Drive used to be referred to as the “kiddie stroll”, because there were so many young girls working the streets there. I moved to that location in the summer of 1998. Until that time I was aware of street prostitution in general, but like most people who aren't directly affected by the issue I tended to just look the other way. However, when I moved into my current apartment I was immediately faced with this issue on a daily basis. I began to see women in very distressful situations. Some who were addicted often used my parking lot to use drugs and to sleep. It was obvious they were in very bad shape. Sometimes I didn't know if they were dead or alive.
    I initially got involved just by calling the ambulances, and I'd wait until they arrived. I think it was the behaviour of the paramedics that first signalled to me that there was something wrong with this picture.
    Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not criticizing those important health workers, but it just seemed.... They knew so many of the girls' names, and it seemed to be just such a routine, mundane “another day at work”, and it quite shocked me. Perhaps it was just my being uneducated on the subject, but I was really deeply troubled that as a society we could let this situation happen.
    From those initial encounters, I set out to educate myself. I wrote to city council about the situation and didn't get a reply. I spoke with the local community police officer, but he seemed quite unenlightened about the situation. All he could offer were enforcement strategies.
    Around that same time I noticed a poster in my neighbourhood offering a public meeting at the local community centre called Kiwassa Neighbourhood House. I attended a meeting; it was quite a raucous meeting. From there I became involved with some progressive-minded residents in the area.
    Kiwassa House had received some funding to initiate a program that was called the Wall Street healthy community project. There were a variety of different initiatives, such as a community garden and youth programs. Different committees were set up, one dealing with street prostitution, so I volunteered my time.
    Those of us in the committee were all laypersons; we didn't have any particular talents or skills [to deal with this issue]. One thing we had in common is that we wanted to see a harm reduction approach taken. At the very least we were all aware that the status quo wasn't working, and we knew that the NIMBY approach didn't work but just pushed the problem from one neighbourhood to the next. We didn't see any point in that type of response to the issue.
    Our committee set out to educate ourselves first before reacting to the problem. We began to read the research and we invited experts to speak to us. For example, we had Professor Lowman, who has testified before you, and two of his colleagues from the criminology department at SFU came to speak to us. We had people from advocacy groups like PACE and WISH attend our meetings. We had people from the health board. [Our MP] Libby Davies came.
    Our committee met on a regular basis for three years, from 1998 to the middle of 2000. In the first half of 2000 we did participatory research, in the form of focus groups, with the help of some UBC sociology students.
    We drafted a five-year strategic plan, a copy of which I've made available for you to look at later.
    There were five broad goals. We wanted to achieve a responsible consensus as a community with respect to prostitution; build strength of community in order to responsibly and inclusively address issues of prostitution; ensure the safety and well-being of all the residents; ensure the safety and well-being of the sex trade workers; and ensure the safety and well-being of youth. Some of those are redundant, now that I read them over.
    Unfortunately, we were never able to achieve consensus in our community on this issue. I believe the primary reason for that was our insistence on an inclusive approach that emphasized harm reduction rather than enforcement, and one that also recognized that many of the sex trade workers in the area were members of this community and deserved as much safety and well-being as any other resident.
    Our community became quite divided on this issue. Some of those who did not agree with our approach but favoured more enforcement policies began to organize around the community policing office. While we were working on education and harm reduction ideas, they were working on establishing community patrols that pushed the women deeper into the more dangerous industrial area. And remember, this was at a time when women were continuing to disappear from that very location and the Vancouver police were in denial that there was a serial killer at large.
    Some residents who favoured more enforcement were openly hostile toward our committee. At some meetings at the community policing office that all the residents were entitled to attend, we were either shouted down or not allowed to speak. It was at one of those meetings where I was called a “hooker hugger”. I guess that was an attempt to insult me, but if that meant I was out to save prostitutes in the same way tree huggers are out to save trees, then I wasn't insulted at all. I just mention that to point out how divisive this issue was, and that taking a stance like our group did wasn't very popular.
    Toward the end of our work as a committee, we became aware of a new group that was just beginning to organize called Pivot. Pivot is quite well known now, but at the time that was one of their very initial meetings, before it was even a society. We learned that they had a vision for exactly what we had been trying to achieve, and that they would be far better able to take this issue on than we were. Our committee was therefore disbanded, partly for funding reasons. Our coordinator had lost funding. I entered law school around that time, so I shifted my attention to the issue of intravenous drug use and collaborated with John Richardson of Pivot on some of the first legal arguments for the safe injection site that is now saving lives.
    I want to wrap up, but I'll just quickly mention one other situation within this timeframe that I've been discussing. You may have heard about one sex worker advocate, Jamie Lee Hamilton. I'm not sure if you have or not. She had attempted to set up a drop-in centre, and she was later charged under the bawdy house laws. Her house was in the same block as mine, directly across the street, so I was at a vantage point of seeing all the activity in the neighbourhood. I was well aware of what she was doing. I visited her home as a friendly neighbour activist, not as a client.
    I also attended her trial. I was sitting in the gallery, and I heard two crown witnesses give the judge quite a distorted view of the neighbourhood. Essentially they were attributing all of the nuisance factors in the neighbourhood to what Jamie was doing. I knew that wasn't true, because there was a drug dealer right next to my building, and I could see from my window exactly what was going on. That drug dealer was there before Jamie had set up, and I testified and explained to the judge that, in my view, what she was doing was actually taking most of the nuisance factors away. I'll let you ask you more questions on that, if you wish.
    I just want to end by saying that on that stroll that I mentioned, there are no longer prostitutes working there that I can see, and that concerns me. It might seem odd to say that, but it seems that the efforts of the citizens' patrols and the Vancouver police have been successful in that. I don't think anybody believes there are fewer prostitutes. They're just deeper into that more dangerous area, and frankly, I think that's quite a shame.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Bulwer
Read the entire day's evidence and further discussion between me and the committee members at the following link: