First Nations prostitutes part of Thunder Bay’s ‘little secret’

Create: 12/01/2015 - 19:27

“We should never look at them as a problem, or an offender,” Bridget Perrier, 36, said of females who are prostitutes. “We should more or less look at them as a victim.”
Perrier spent years working as a prostitute, having started at a young age on the streets of Thunder Bay. It has been 10 years since she left the sex-trade industry, and she now works with other ex-prostitutes with a goal of getting more young women out of the cycle of prostitution.
Perrier was born in Thunder Bay to an Ojibwe woman who gave her up for adoption to a non-Native family. During her time with her adopted family, a friend of the family sexually abused her. She began to exhibit behaviour problems and it was hard for her parents to handle her.
She ended up in a Children’s Aid Society-run group home where she was “recruited” to work as a prostitute at the age of 12.
“I started turning tricks at a really young age. I worked Simpson Street – back in the day, that was the place to work,” Perrier explained.
“There was a whole group of us,” she added. “You wouldn’t believe how many girls. This is Thunder Bay’s little secret.”
Although Thunder Bay has a thriving sex-trade industry, there are little to no options available for women who would like to exit the industry. Perrier said that there was “nothing in Thunder Bay” for a young woman in her situation, so she had to go to Toronto for help.
Thunder Bay still lacks services
It’s been 10 years since her departure, and the city is still lacking in services for women looking for a way out of the business.
A call was made by Wawatay News to the social-services information line 211 Ontario asking for services in Thunder Bay that were aimed at women exiting the sex-trade. The operator at 211 provided information on shelters in the city, as well as counseling services and Ontario Works for monetary help and low-income housing, but there was no single entity to help a woman in need of an exit-strategy.
Sue Watson, an outreach worker at the John Howard Society, acknowledges the fact that today there are not any programs set up in the city for these women.
Watson said that the issue is starting to gain the attention of groups around the city. Other programs that are already in place have become quasi-outreach programs for prostitutes who can utilize some of the services offered, she said.
“Our homeless people’s program has expanded into grief services for sex-trade workers,” Watson said, adding that she often counsels women who are involved in prostitution.
The John Howard’s Society has also formed a coalition called Sex-trade Workers Alliance of Northwestern Ontario (SWAN).
When speaking with ex-prostitutes about what helped them the most when it came to leaving the sex-trade, Watson learned that there was “one person who was supportive and they were the key to getting out” for these women.
“SWAN is hoping to be that key,” said Watson.
Watson explained that it is not the group’s intention to try and coerce the women into changing, but to be supportive and also educate the community and other social workers not to judge them.
“We just want them (the sex-trade workers) to be able to access services and know that we are here,” Watson expressed.
Watson is hoping to recruit former street workers into SWAN to get their invaluable input with creating a program, much like the website Sextrade101 that was started by Perrier and her associates.
Sextrade101’s mission is to educate and spread awareness of the ills of the business and is also aimed at helping women escape the lifestyle.
“It seems to be the model that works,” Watson said of Perrier’s ideology.
Colonialism and First Nation street workers
First Nations women have long since been a target for men and women seeking to exploit them by luring them into the prostitution lifestyle. In an essay written by Jackie Lynne, entitled Colonialism and the Sexual Exploitation of Canada’s First Nations Women, she states: “Street prostitution in the lives of Canadian First Nations women is a fundamental form of sexual oppression whose exploitative roots are located within earlier colonial relations.”
In her essay Lynne writes that First Nations women have been dominated since early European settlers first made contact. Since European women were not allowed to join their husbands in colonial Canada, First Nations women were targeted as “country wives.” Patriarchy, a social-system where the male is dominant over the female, was introduced to First Nations in Canada through European contact.
“The sexual domination of First Nations women has remained unabated to present-day due to patriarchy’s stronghold,” Lynne positions in the paper.
In Perrier’s view, the effects of colonization can be seen in the number of young First Nations women on the streets of cities across Canada.
“Aboriginal people have intergenerational trauma, we have suffered under the hands of colonialism for a long time – it does play a big role,” Perrier explained. “It is sad that such a beautiful people are so targeted. It’s our territory, we shouldn’t have to feel that pressure.”
Meanwhile Thunder Bay, which is still an anchorage for ships with sailors and has always been a starting off point for men who work in the bush and surrounding mines, has a long-standing history of brothels and prostitution.
In an article in Thunder Bay’s Chronicle Journal, dated February 3, 2012, on the subject of prostitution in Thunder Bay, current mayor Keith Hobbes is quoted as saying that when he was a rookie cop in the city in 1976, he questioned why the brothels in the city were not shut down.
“I was told that the brothels were tolerated as part of the community,” he said. “The brothels had always been there and always would be.”
New legislation could make things worse
The introduction of a new legislation in March of this year could allow prostitutes to operate legal brothels out of their homes in Ontario. Perrier worries that this will make it more difficult to seek out those who are trafficking underage prostitutes in brothels, and lead to more people choosing to enter the world of prostitution.
“It is not an inspiring career choice,” Perrier said. “Girls need to see the pictures of their self when they start turning tricks. First you look great, but by the end of the cycle you’re missing teeth. You’re whacked out.”
Perrier feels that the new law regarding the brothel houses does not protect the girls who are working, but the men who are preying on them.
“Those men who are trolling around for girls should be charged,” Perrier said.
Watson also agreed that it is the men who pay for sex who should be the focus when it comes to the issue of prostitution.
“People are not identifying the Johns,” Watson said. “They are harassing the women, more so.”
Perrier believes that Canada should “go the Nordic model,” which is making it illegal for men to pay for sexual services and holding them accountable instead of the women who sell sex.
“Hold the demand accountable, and the supply will diminish,” Perrier said.
As for Thunder Bay’s “little secret,” Watson wants to see the issue of prostitution in Thunder Bay brought out into the mainstream media.
“Keeping this issue on the forefront is the key,” Watson said about curtailing Thunder Bay’s high prostitution rates. “This is forgotten about, we need to keep it more visible and get more education on the subject out there.”
“Survivalists have come out of it (prostitution),” Perrier said. “And they’re worth it. Their dreams are worth it and their dreams will help them come out.”

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