Thunder Bay prostitution getting increased focus
The issue of prostitution in Thunder Bay, long hidden underground, is starting to receive increased attention from a number of organizations in the city.
Lana Ray, Director of Policy and Research at the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) in Thunder Bay, said that the issue of prostitution in the city is still emerging and that from an academic standpoint, there is not a lot of information about it.
In response to the lack of information, ONWA is preparing to release a report on the topic based on a focus group with 27 Aboriginal women who were residing in Thunder Bay, most of whom were involved in prostitution.
“ONWA really started to address sex-trafficking in the region in the last year or so,” Ray said. “We know there’s not much documented on it, but Aboriginal organizations in the city would give a similar response that there is a high rate of prostitution in our community.”
While there have been reports done on Aboriginal prostitution in Winnipeg, southern Ontario and Vancouver, ONWA’s upcoming report will be the first of its kind in northwestern Ontario.
“We at ONWA acknowledge that many Aboriginal women are constrained by larger, structural issues. Colonization has an effect on the choices,” Ray said. “Prostitutes live in a realm of sexual exploitation, which we view as sex-trafficking because they really have very limited options. So is that really informed consent?”
Ray said that many of the women who engage with ONWA and utilize their programs do not come out and say that they are being sexually-exploited.
“A lot of them express that they have no choices; that they prostitute because they don’t have a choice,” she said. “A lot of them live in fear of not having a place to live.”
ONWA had been running a drop-in program where many Aboriginal women in the city accessed services, but funding for the program was cut in March 2012. The program was receiving funding from Ontario’s Action Plan, instilled in 2010 after efforts to counter prostitution in the province became more prevalent.
“Our conversations went along the lines of ‘what do you need?’ instead of pressuring them or telling them what they needed,” Ray said about the discussions held with the women of the drop-in program. “Housing was a big thing that came up a lot. There is already a lack of affordable housing the city.”
Ray said that the women in the drop-in program expressed an interest in short-term housing like a safe house where they could go. Ray said that ONWA needs long-term support in terms of housing, along with social programs to help the women.
Nearly all of the women in ONWA’s focus group spoke of experiencing traumatic childhoods, which often led them into prostitution. Ray said experiences such as those have to be dealt with alongside providing housing for the women.
The women also expressed a desire to leave the sex-trade, Ray said, but many felt they needed life-skills training to give them more options so they would not have to resort to prostitution.
“The majority of the women in the trade are in engaged in survival sex,” Ray said.
Ray said that it would be incredibly beneficial to the public at large and to the “decision makers” if Aboriginal women in the sex-trade were viewed as being sexually-exploited and placed within the context of trafficking.
“One reason that soliciting is still illegal is because it’s a public nuisance. What is the ideology behind that?” Ray asked. “To me, it doesn’t speak to looking after the welfare of Aboriginal women on the streets. It actually is women with very limited options in a position where they are being exploited.”
Since the drop-in program was cancelled because of the funding cuts, ONWA has been running an outreach program where workers will go out onto the streets and maintain connections as well as hand out supplies to the women.
Ray said that the women often have trust issues, so obtaining long-term funding to keep building a trusting relationship that the women in the sex-trade can rely on is very important.
“We are looking at continuing our drop-in program,” Ray said. “We must ensure programming is available to keep building those relationships in order to have success with helping the women.”
Ray said that ONWA is also collaborating with Ontario HIV/AIDS Strategy. The two entities are in the developmental stages for a committee.
“We are really trying to pool together our knowledge and resources for women,” she said. “Hopefully we can make a change at policy level as well.”
Ray would like the committee to include women who were once involved in the sex-trade because she feels they would be a great resource to the group as a peer-run group that women could go to.
“In the drop-in program, we had women there who were involved in the sex-trade before and it really opened up dialogue between the women who are still in the trade,” Ray said.
With a committee in the making to deal with the issue of Aboriginal women in the sex-trade and the report on the focus group ready for public release, Ray hopes that the community and its service workers will start to view women who work as prostitutes in a different light.
“It’s just so important for whoever has contact with these women, like those in child welfare, health services, law enforcement, to acknowledge that our Aboriginal women, our beautiful Aboriginal women, have intrinsic value,” Ray said. “It needs to be understood that they come from a situation where they have limited options. The women shouldn’t be afraid to get help and they should know that their opinions matter.”
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