Operation Northern Spotlight Targets Sex Workers in Canada

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Author: 
North America and Caribbean Regional Correspondent

From 11-15 October, hundreds of Canadian sex workers in nine provinces were subjected to a fifth and final round of sting operations under the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) initiative "Operation Northern Spotlight." These sting operations involve police officers booking fake appointments with sex workers to gain access to their work spaces. 

As Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau, Work, Educate, and Resist (POWER) wrote in a press release in October of 2015, “this failed and criticized tactic was used by police forces across Canada through Operation Northern Spotlight in January 2014, October 2014, and June 2015” and stated that while the initiative claims to be ensuring that no coercion is taking place, “the impact of intimidating sex workers, violating their right to privacy and putting their confidentiality and safety at risk” is violating in itself. In the initial raids, Jessica, a worker POWER spoke with, said that she “was alone and outnumbered and honestly quite scared of them harassing me in the hopes of finding a pimp or other criminal.”  Jessica, who was visited in October of 2014, said, “there was at least 6 police officers.”

In Calgary, 41 women were interviewed in a hotel room after believing they were going to an appointment with a client. Calgary Herald reporter Michael Lumsden was present in the room beside where the sting was taking place. He described Operation Northern Spotlight in his article as “a national effort from Canadian law enforcement to get information on women, and men, who continue to work in the high-risk world of the sex trade” stating that “one by one, the officers make the calls […] hoping to entice another person to leave the world's oldest profession.”

When reached by email, Lumsden said that he was authorized by the Calgary Police and the RCMP to be present during the sting and that the women interviewed for his article “were only done so after permitting me to speak to them.” Lumsden said that the police were offering exit strategies if the women chose to take them, and that “otherwise it was merely to collect information not to be shared outside of an RCMP database, and only to be used in the worst case if the person is hurt or killed while part of the lifestyle.” He added that, “any worker who came in was able to leave immediately if they wished. They were also able to decline offering any information if they chose to do so.” His article quotes Detective Paul Rubner telling sex workers, “I know it's scary for you. It has to be. But think of it this way, you walked into a room where a man had his gun on his belt. I'm a good guy, but a lot of them won't be.”  This quote reinforces the violence sex workers suffer at the hands of the police.

Shift Calgary, a programme that supports sex workers in Calgary, describes itself as long-term partners with Calgary Police “in assisting victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.” Shift stated that it “supports sex workers regardless of intent to leave the sex industry” and believes “that it is of utmost importance to make the distinction between sex work and the concepts of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and that actions like the recent Operation Northern Spotlight stings may increase the confusion around these terms. This has the potential to further disenfranchise sex workers in our communities.”

“As the experts on the industry, sex workers have a lot to contribute to helping those who may experience coercion,” said Emily Symons in POWER’s statement released during the initial stings in 2014. “Once again, the police have failed to consult sex workers before developing and implementing a policy that fails to help those it is intended to help and puts sex workers at risk.”

Taylor Simone volunteers at PACE Society and agrees these stings are a form of police surveillance under the guise of safety. “It seems like another instance of treating sex workers as pieces of evidence rather then humans exercising their rights,” she says.