A rare (and major) success for Canadian sex workers

So I have made my stance on sex work pretty clear – I see nothing inherently immoral about having sex with someone for money, provided both parties are reasonably informed of the risks inherent in any kind of casual sex and are capable of giving consent. That’s more or less the liberal boiler plate for sex work. I take it a step further than some do when I say that I also don’t see anything inherently tragic about sex work. Yeah, the most easily-retrievable meme about sex work is that of the street-walking hooker, desperate and starving and turning tricks to feed her smack habit. Rescue sex work exists, and drug addiction can be a serious problem in all low socio-economic status groups – the intersection of those two cannot be ignored or dismissed. However, that’s not a problem with sex work per se – there are a number of other factors, both personal and societal, that create those situations. They certainly do not comprise the entirety of the trade.

While I have expressed my reservations before about losing the focus of this blog, tilting at every windmill I come across, something happened this week that sort of blew the doors off that plan. I say ‘sort of’ because it involves Canada’s courts, and this is a ‘good news week’ (to try and balance out last week’s and Monday’s heaviness), and because fuck it, I want to. A few months ago, a group of sex workers and advocates challenged Canada’s laws on operating ‘a bawdy house’ – the language gives you a hint as to how old the law is. The law states that while prostitution is perfectly legal, it is illegal to make one’s living as a prostitute or to operate an indoor business for the purposes of prostitution. Which leaves… the street.

Scary shit happens out on the streets. When you have less control over your surroundings (and who your customers are), you are at greater risk of violence and/or exploitation. If sex work is how you pay your bills, then you’re trapped between a rock and a hard place when it comes to turning away customers or deciding to avoid the streets. One might argue that forcing prostitutes to the streets puts them in unnecessary danger that they wouldn’t face if they could practice their trade indoors. One in fact did argue that. One won: [Read more…]

Trayvon: my thoughts and reactions

So this morning I tried to focus pretty much exclusively on the facts of the case and leave my own personal interpretation out of my analysis. Of course, this is a blog and I am far from an objective, dispassionate observer of events. I also mentioned that I couldn’t quite put my finger on the issue that was so sickening to me when I first heard the story, but in order to do that I’m going to need to walk through a couple of other things first.

1. I am deeply cynical about the chance of George Zimmerman facing arrest

As I mentioned this morning, Florida’s gun laws are pretty clear-cut – if you feel threatened, you have a right to shoot to kill. It strains credulity that an unarmed 17 year-old kid (no matter how black) could pose any kind of serious threat to an armed man 10 years his senior who outweighs him by an entire human being, but that’s not important. Much like mandatory minimums, the law does not make room for discretion – it is certainly likely that Mr. Zimmerman felt threatened and fired his gun. Under all interpretations of the law that I’ve seen, there was no chargeable offense committed.

Considering the close relationship between Mr. Zimmerman and the police department, coupled with the department’s history with letting anti-black crimes slip, I can’t see much happening. Even though the federal justice department is involved, they have limited jurisdiction unless a federal law was broken. Again, from the analyses I’ve seen, unless they can demonstrate that Mr. Zimmerman fired his gun with murderous intent rather than during a struggle (and I have no idea how one would go about proving that), I think this is going to end up being another one of those examples where the clear immorality of the act committed is dismissed by the legal system. A legal system, incidentally, that is not on Trayvon’s side to begin with. [Read more…]

Trayvon: a stroll through the facts

A couple weeks back a story crossed my eyes that made me feel sick to my stomach for reasons I couldn’t quite place. It was the story of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old kid who was shot and killed in Orlando by neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Obviously the story upset me for the normal reasons – a fellow human being killed is not something that can simply be shrugged off. That being said, this is hardly the first story I’ve heard about someone getting killed in the fucked up, gun-happy, cowboy fetishizing United States. For a country with more than 12,000 gun murders a year (compared to 170 per year in Canada), there’s simply no way that a person could be this sickened every time someone gets murdered – I’d never get anything else done.

But there are some details about this case that make this case particularly gruesome.

1. Trayvon was murdered in his own neighbourhood

Martin was shot after returning home from a local convenience store, where he bought snacks including Skittles candy requested by his 13-year-old brother, Chad.


The man in question is Neighborhood Watch Captain George Zimmerman, who was present at the time of the shooting.  According to Crump, while Martin returned to the townhome, police received a 911 call reporting a suspicious person; Zimmerman was the man that made the call.

Without waiting for police to arrive, Crump said, Zimmerman confronted Martin, who was on the sidewalk near his home. By the time police got there, Martin was dead of a single gunshot to the chest and the only thing they found on him was a can of Arizona ice tea in his jacket pocket and Skittles in his front pocket for his brother Chad. [Read more…]

Justice may be blind, but we’re not

So tomorrow I am going to be talking about a story that’s been in the news for a while and has only recently begun to pick up steam. It’s a heavy story with a lot of moving parts, and there’s absolutely no way that I can cover it comprehensively. What I’m hoping to do with today’s posts is drop a couple of anchors for ideas in your brains so that I can breeze through some of the concepts tomorrow (or at least link to these posts).

One of the realities that we’ve explored in various guises here at this blog is the idea that the justice system is often racist. Not racist in an intentional, conscious bigotry sense (although that may occasionally be the case – more on that later) – that would be absurd: a system cannot have intention to the same extent that a person can. But as we’ve been discussing, the intent of racist actions is more or less immaterial – we judge racism by outcomes. If an institution discriminates against someone intentionally or passively, the only difference that makes is in how we try to fix the problem – it makes little difference to the victim.

Whereas the legal system is supposed to see all people as equal, it is built upon a foundation that assumes that all people are treated equally going into the system, and that the human beings that make up the system are impartial. However, we can quickly see that is not the case: [Read more…]

Morality? Oh THAT’S rich…

Now I have no idea how many people actually believe this, and maybe I’m late to the party, but it seems that the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that people on the lowest socioeconomic rungs bear the brunt of the punishment. Sure, part of it is the fact that the very wealthy can afford lawyers and have more familial strings to pull to reduce the charge. But that stuff is extra-judicial. That’s not the way the justice system is set up – that’s the way the entire political/economic/social system is set up. It’s rigged for the rich – everyone knows that.

But the criminal justice system itself – the way the laws are enforced, what we think of when we conjure an image of ‘crime’, the kinds of cases we prosecute and the way we go about executing ‘justice’ – these all seem to be in the business of punishing the poor. Steal $50 from someone on the street and you’re a monster – steal several trillion and you’re appointed to the president’s economic council. We actually have the gall to distinguish between ‘crime’ and ‘white collar crime’, as though one is the nicer version of the other.

Now there are a number of potential explanations for this, but certainly one of them is that poor people are just less trustworthy. I was offered that hypothesis straight-faced by someone at Skeptics in the Pub a couple of months ago – poor people are poor because they’re immoral and lack the decency to work their way out of poverty. The wealthy are less criminal because they’re more moral, right? Yeah, looks like the opposite is true: [Read more…]

Racism in Toronto: doing it wrong

While I live in Vancouver now, I am actually a relatively recent arrival. My family moved away from Vancouver when I was about three years old, and I spent the years from age 10 – 20 in the suburbs of Toronto. Despite not living in Toronto proper, I did spend a lot of time there on weekends, and have visited numerous times since moving away for university. While I can’t claim to be from Toronto, I certainly have a ‘feel’ for the city – a familiarity with a few of the cultural hotspots, the ‘vibe’ from some of the people there, the somewhat-intangible character of the city itself. Despite it being fashionable to insult Toronto here in Vancouver, I remain a stalwart defender of a place with which I ultimately feel a great deal of kinship.

Having moved to my new home, I find many similarities. Obviously, we are still talking about major Canadian cities that are fairly politically liberal and share a certain ethos. It’s pretty easy, however, to spot the major differences. The landscape and, resultantly, cityscape in Vancouver are dramatically different from Toronto. The demographics of the city are obviously different, and above and beyond the cliches about Vancouver being more “laid back”, the layout of the city and surrounding area lend themselves to a very different profile of interests and activities for Vancouverites compared to Torontonians.

Once you get past the big differences though, one begins to gain an appreciation for the more subtle differences. The way bus passengers say ‘thank you’, the drier air in the summer, the way people buy heavy-duty rain gear so they can bike year-round… little things. For me, one of the most remarkable is the way cops don’t look at me when they pass in their cars. It still blows my mind – unlike here, getting eye-fucked by cops was par for the course in Toronto. It doesn’t seem that much has changed: [Read more…]

So high, so low

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: mandatory minimums are racist. When we finally strip away the facile understanding of ‘racism’ as an intentional discriminatory act by a bad person against someone else, we are able to recognize that people, institutions, and traditions can be racist. The lack of intentionality is immaterial with respect to whether or not an action is racist – a better yardstick to use is whether or not it has the same effect that an intentionally racist (or “really” racist) action would. Put another way – I can be racist without even trying, and so can a non-conscious entity such as an institution (or even a non-entity like a policy).

Judged by this metric (which is arguably far more useful and accurate than the one used to detect ‘classic racism’), mandatory minimums serve to exacerbate existing racial disparities by removing the capacity of the system to take societal factors into account. In other words, they’re racist:

The legislation, a medley of 10 bills on the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda, includes mandatory-minimum-sentencing rules that will curtail judges’ abilities to deal out alternative sentences. That could undo a decade-long effort to find culturally specific ways of diverting inmates such as Mr. Findlay away from serial engagements with the justice system. Native Canadians make up less than 4 per cent of the general population, but they account for 22 per cent of prison inmates. Many of those are young men who have grown up in poverty and high unemployment, and who have lower-than-average education levels.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said recently that aboriginal children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school. More will go to jail after C-10, and many will end up in the gangs that flourish in western and northern jails, where more than 70 per cent of inmates are aboriginal. “What we’re doing with C-10,” says Jonathan Rudin, program director of the ALST, “is to increase our reliance on things that don’t work.” [Read more…]

Courting disaster

I don’t do a lot of computer coding at work, but I do occasionally find myself forced to make a computer do something that exists only in my head and on paper. I don’t really have much of a background in computer science, aside from a couple of courses in statistical analysis methods in undergrad. The problem is, there’s certainly no shortage of project in which at least some coding is required, forcing me to have to learn as I go. Luckily, I am surrounded by competent professionals who can give me examples of their own work that I can copy. Of course, the problem with this approach is that I do occasionally have to do some original work and solve new problems.

My incompetence (in this matter – I am well competent in most things, just not computer programming so much) forces me to try and tackle the problem with the little experience and few tools that I have at my disposal. This involves using the few tools I have at my disposal in a series of “work-arounds”. What inevitably emerges is a program that functions, but is really clumsy and unwieldy. If I have to go back and change something, it takes a lot of unraveling, which is a time-consuming process. When I show it to colleagues, they always say “oh, well why didn’t you just do this?” and then they show me some nifty trick or macro or something that I hadn’t even considered, and it cleans up my analysis really quickly and elegantly.

Now, if I were less aware of my relatively junior standing in my field, or if I were just a whiny and petulant dick, I would view the contributions of my colleagues as attacks on my intelligence. I’d refuse to show them the flaws in my work, in an attempt to cultivate an illusion of infallibility – an illusion that would quickly crumble under the intense scrutiny of peer review. That’s how science works – it’s actually to my benefit to show my work to my colleagues, even if it means exposing my own ignorance. I will learn something, and my results will be much stronger when it comes time to have them reviewed by others who may not be as friendly. It turns out that there may be an element to this in politics as well: [Read more…]

Are we ‘getting it’?

So this morning I lamented openly about the seeming inability of my fellow Canadians to notice the extremism and hypocritical, bullying nature of our current government. I may have oversold the argument a bit – it may not be that people don’t notice; it may simply be that they don’t care. Whatever the reason for the lack of national outcry over a series of should-be-scandals that are much larger than the one that played a role in unseating the previous government, we do not seem particularly concerned with the incompetence and malice that characterizes much (but certainly not all) of the current regime.

There is another potential explanation: the data may just take time to hit home. I will confess that I probably pay more attention to politics than the ‘average’ person. I find the discussion of competing alternative explanations for the same issue fascinating, and I find the foibles of humanity displayed proudly in the halls of power to be endlessly diverting. I also care passionately about the direction of my country (and the world in general), so I am always hungry for new information about the political system. There are, believe it or not, people who are even more passionate and motivated than I am, and it is to them I go when I need the cracks in my understanding filled in a bit.

So I suppose it is likely that what I might see as apathy or purposeful indifference may simply be an entirely-understandable ‘lag time’ between when I get fired up, and when the rest of the country comes around: [Read more…]

Racism in Canada: the myth and the reality

One of the things I find particularly irksome about the stereotype that Canadians have about themselves (ourselves) is that we are a fundamentally “nice” people – so nice, in fact, that we don’t really have a problem with racism. It is the case that Canada’s history of racism is not as obvious as it is in, say, the United States. We do not have the descendants of slaves making up a significant portion of our population, and have managed to keep our national racist shame out of the headlines for the most part (at least until quite recently).

As a result, Canadians have managed to convince ourselves that racism is some else’s problem – that Canada is a bastion of inclusion and a safe haven for all people. Or if not so extreme as that, we at least believe that, deep down, racism isn’t that big of a deal here. The reason this is particularly frustrating for me is that, as someone who discusses race and race issues, I find myself having to run uphill to simply get someone to acknowledge that racism can exist here. Once that’s done, then comes the harder battle of convincing them that they have a role to play in addressing it.

Like any national myth – American exceptionalism, British imperialism, French superiority – the myth of Canadian racial benevolence is quickly shattered by even a cursory glance at the evidence: [Read more…]