The Federal Inquiry must address Canada’s colonial legacy and Harper’s sex work laws


first-decriminalize-sex-work-now-facebook-pageBy Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV)

In December 2015, a huge sigh of relief went up across the country as it was finally announced that the federal government would begin the process of holding an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) across Canada. It is well known that the inquiry was a demand coming from affected communities for many years, and that the Harper government staunchly refused to look into why so many of our indigenous sisters were disappearing across this country. The questions have been mounting, and the grief and fear building. Now finally there is a sign that some kind of attention to this issue is on the horizon.

However, as clear as it is necessary to hold an inquiry into MMIW in Canada, it is also clear that there are many perspectives to consider even in the shaping of the inquiry itself. It is impossible to acknowledge the reality of MMIW, either through stories or statistics, and not also acknowledge that this is inherently part of the legacy of colonization. Just as there have been painful and intergenerational impacts of the Residential School System and the Sixties Scoop, there are also echoes of trauma through our communities as we have lost so many daughters, sisters and mothers. Recently the Trudeau government committed to implementing all recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation report, including holding the MMIW Inquiry. SWUAV believes that this is an important recognition of the systemic problems that have contributed to increased violence against Indigenous women.

The issue of MMIW in Canada has become highly politicized and subject of many promises from politicians. We strongly urge the new federal government to put politics aside and go to the communities who are affected for guidance on how to proceed. It is important that this inquiry doesn’t become a process that only generates another report that people may or may not read – there needs to be real change and recommendations that are relevant to the various local realities across the country. By engaging the experience and expertise of individuals and organizations that have been working on this issue for decades, we will have a better chance of an inquiry that is meaningful for affected communities.

At Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV), through our outreach and support programs, as well as through our own Board of Directors, we know firsthand that Indigenous women are highly represented among sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. We also know that there are women who have been identified among the hundreds of MMIW who had some connection to sex work, whether it was related to their disappearance or not. Canada’s current laws around sex work place all sex workers, including Indigenous women doing sex work, at greater risk for gender-based violence, including murder. We believe that it is imperative that the inquiry into the MMIW in Canada includes a conversation about sex work, and the impact of criminalization and policing practices across the country with respect to sex workers and their clients.

These moves from the federal government have been a long time coming. It is tragic that many have had to come to harm up until now, but if anything, that makes it all the more urgent that action be taken in order to improve the health and safety conditions for all Indigenous women in Canada. This includes Indigenous women who do sex work – and as has always been SWUAV’s position, we believe that one of the most important things the Canadian government can do immediately to increase safety for sex workers is to repeal the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) – the laws currently criminalizing the sale and purchase of sexual services in Canada.

For more information about the efforts to decriminalize sex work, as well as links to the new ‘Know Your Rights’ cards for sex workers developed by Pivot Legal Society in partnership with SWUAV and SWAN Vancouver, please visit

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