Street Legal: Katrina Pacey sparks a revolution in sex workers' rights

Katrina Pacey outside the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Photo by Kris Krug.


Many members of the feminist community take the position that any and all sex work is exploitive and should be abolished. But Katrina Pacey, always one to take the road less travelled, has dedicated her professional life to fighting for more rights for sex workers. Within the feminist community, it’s a controversial position that has caused her to lose some supporters over the years. But it could also help save the lives of thousands of vulnerable women across Canada.


Pacey is a founding member of Pivot Legal Society, an award-winning Downtown Eastside legal advocacy organization. She and her street-level sex worker clients have been fighting to have Canada’s prostitution laws struck down. As the ongoing Missing Women’s Inquiry has shown, the country’s current criminal laws have left sex workers vulnerable to the prejudice of the police and exposed to horrific violence.


As Pacey’s fight winds its way up from the streets of Vancouver to the Supreme Court of Canada, the outcome could finally offer sex workers the safety and protection that has been tragically lacking for decades.


But defending sex workers’ rights hasn’t been an easy task for Pacey, either personally or professionally. Along with disputes within the feminist community, the case has battled multiple appeals from the federal government, which has argued that Pacey’s clients, a sex worker organization and a former sex worker, shouldn’t have the right to challenge the laws.


The appeals have taken the case in a very different, but still crucial, direction, as Pacey and her clients from the Downtown Eastside’s Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV) now fight to show that the inherent dangers and marginalization of sex work make it extremely difficult for current sex workers to initiate this complex and high-profile litigation. Just this January, that case finally made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada (a decision is pending).


It will be months before Pacey and the women learn whether they can even pursue the Charter challenge. And if they’re successful, it could be years before the actual fight to change the laws are heard. But Pacey remains undeterred. Despite the enormous challenges, the fight for sex workers’ rights has changed her life—and, she admits, her opinions on sex work.


Activist roots


Born and raised on Vancouver’s west side, the 38-year-old lawyer with a sunny smile and sleek blonde hair maybe isn’t exactly who you’d expect to see fighting in the trenches with street-level sex workers. But through her years of activism and legal support work, Pacey now finds herself at the forefront of what could be two landmark changes to the country’s legal code. Both would have tremendous impacts in helping level the playing field for marginalized people, especially women. Although she’s never been one to adhere to convention, Pacey’s own journey has even surprised herself. While she grew up within the feminist movement, she never would have seen herself becoming one of the country’s leading sex worker advocates. Growing up, she had a very different opinion about prostitution.


“I had a media driven, ‘80s-feminism type of analysis that all sex workers are victims and no one would do that work by choice—that sex work is always exploitive,” she says of her younger self. “I had a lot of pretty deep stereotypes and assumptions about what prostitution is.”


But the more Pacey got involved with defending the rights of women, the more her attitudes on sex work began to change. Raised in a loving, supportive, and somewhat unconventional west side family, Pacey has spent most of her life in Vancouver. That she was brought up with privilege is much of the reason she dedicates her life to working with those who are less privileged.


“I see myself as very fortunate,” she says. “Because out of the benefit of that and as a result, I hope I have a lot to give. That’s kind of how I see the equation.”


Pacey grew up in an activist household. Her mother, Ingrid Pacey, is a feminist activist who works as a psychiatrist and physician. As the younger Pacey was introduced to protests at pro-choice and women’s equality rallies, she was nervous, but excited at what the energy felt like for people who believed in a cause and worked together. “I knew there was something really important about the passion and the focus on women’s rights,” she says.


After enrolling at the University of British Columbia to embark on a political science degree with a minor in women’s studies, Pacey decided to expand her horizons by taking a year off mid university to see what else the world had to offer. It would be a life-changing adventure. An avid sailor and mountain biker, her instincts took her to New Zealand and Australia where she spent six months biking around the two countries.


The solitude and independence changed her, and so did her experience with those countries’ indigenous populations. She made a decision then that she would give up the hobbies that took up her time and focus solely on activism.


When she returned from her journey and completed her degree, she followed through with her promise to herself and began to get involved in projects that focused on feminism and women’s rights.


From the west side to the eastside


Law school had always been on the radar, but Pacey was apprehensive about the pressures that schooling might take on her burgeoning convictions. So she enrolled to do a masters degree in women’s studies. But she started spending less time at school and more time within the Downtown Eastside community. Law school and social justice soon beckoned.


During her first month of law school, her partner gave her a home printed pamphlet that introduced her to Pivot Legal Society. At her Pivot first meeting, the issue of police brutality was raised and the idea of a rights card was born. With a lot of hope and as much naiveté, Pacey approached the police department to see if they could work together to create a wallet-sized document that informed citizens of their rights when encountering the police.


An epiphany of sorts occurred when the department practically laughed her out the door. “The police didn’t seem to want people to know their rights,” she says, not that they would say as much. Opening the lid on police injustice was a courageous move. “The general public wasn’t talking about police brutality in Vancouver,” she says. In fact, she often faced resistance and doubt when she would bring it up.


But that only strengthened her commitment to Pivot and its mission. “We work in collaboration with members of this community and rely on their expertise and their experience as evidence for the work that we do,” she says. “I wasn’t going to come waltzing in and somehow dictate what’s best for people in this community.”


However, Pacey realized Pivot was still missing an important voice—that of women. So Pacey held women’s-only meetings to explore what issues were important to them. And it was when she talked to sex workers themselves that her views on prostitution began to change. As part of Pivot, Pacey helped compile 94 affidavits with street-level sex workers who unanimously agreed that Canada’s current prostitution laws were placing them in danger.


“That changed me, going through that process and hearing those stories about how these women are victims to violence and unable to access police protection,” she says about the interview process. “And the types of violence they were experiencing was unimaginable to me.”


At the time, Robert William Pickton had yet to be charged for the murder of many of the 69 missing women from the Downtown Eastside, many of whom were sex workers. Pacey saw that the current laws were hurting, not protecting, women. She knew then that the laws had to change.


“Law reform is about saving lives,” says Pacey. “I am committed to the fight to end patriarchy and will always fight against violence against women and lack of housing and education, but while we’re fighting for those things, for the women in this community, I want them to be alive so that they can enjoy the benefit of all those social reforms when the day comes.”


A leading, contested voice Pacey has certainly made her mark within Pivot. Since she joined the organization she has won a YWCA Woman of Distinction award, a UBC Law Alumni award and was named one of the top 100 most influential women in British Columbia by The Vancouver Sun.


Pivot’s founding executive director John Richardson has watched her transform over the past decade from young lawyer to one of the “leading voices in Canada [on sex trade reform].”


“She’s become much stronger in her convictions,” he says. “She’s definitely a lot more rooted in the evidence. She’s very clear about what she thinks is right … An area where she’s really grown is really staying by her beliefs and not being afraid to speak out against people she likes and respects.”


While Pacey has become one of the country’s leading activists, standing up for sex workers wasn’t an easy transition.


“I was hoping that we wouldn’t be asked to take on the issue of sex work and law reform because coming from the feminist community, I knew that was a really divisive, difficult, complex issue,” she says.


But listening to the stories of violence and abuse that sex workers encountered due in part to existing laws clarified one perspective. “It was not until I spent another year or two after I’d met with other workers from all aspects of the industry that I feel like the full picture sunk in, that I started to understand the diversity of the industry,” she says.


The decision to take on the rights of sex workers has had some personal consequences for Pacey. While the tragic cases of missing and murdered women in Vancouver has helped change many people’s perspective on prostitution laws, many within the feminist community feel the laws need to be stricter, not loosened.


“It’s hard and I have a lot of sadness about that, because there are people I considered allies who seem to feel they can not collaborate with me on other issues because of my position on this issue,” she says. “So that’s very difficult and has been exactly what I thought it would be, which is very divisive and isolating within the feminist community.”


As much as she may have given up personally to embroil herself in the battle, she would never concede to the idea that she has sacrificed anything all. This is where she belongs, she insists, listening to the voices of Canada’s least protected citizens and affecting real and meaningful change through Canada’s legal system.



Justice calls


In August 2007, five years after she opened the initial dialogue with sex workers, Pacey and Pivot provided legal counsel to SWUAV to challenge Canada’s prostitution laws. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, and that was confirmed when the Department of Justice, the defendant in the case, responded by throwing up as many roadblocks as possible.


The federal government argued that since former sex workers aren’t subject to any criminal charges, they shouldn’t be allowed to bring a Charter challenge to the laws. The B.C. Supreme Court agreed with the feds, but in 2010, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in favour of SWUAV. The federal government then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.


DJ Joe, Sheri Kiselbach and Katrina Pacey outside the Supreme Court of Canada in January 2012. Photo by Esther Shannon.

This past January, the case finally made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Whatever the outcome, Pacey has limitless hope that change for the protection and safety of sex workers will come.


Part of that hope comes from the fact that while Pacey and SWUAV have been pursuing sex worker rights in B.C., three sex workers in Ontario have been making their way through the courts. In 2010 the Ontario Superior Court ruled that parts of the country’s prostitution laws are unconstitutional. The federal government is now appealing the ruling.


Like last year’s Supreme Court ruling that allowed Vancouver’s safe-injection site to keep operating, it seems like only a matter of time before the country’s punitive and dangerous prostitution laws are finally repealed.


And as the case continues through the courts, Pacey’s own role has changed over the years. Having stepped into the role of director of litigation at Pivot, she and two colleagues recently opened up a boutique law firm—“I don’t mean to sound fancy,” she says— called Ethos Law Group. They offer pro bono work for Pivot and other organizations and lawyers feel ethically aligned with the files they take on. They also give a percentage of their profits to Pivot Legal Society.


“I really believed that this town needed a law firm that identified as socially responsible and committed to social justice,” she says. “We see ourselves as strong advocates, but also legal educators to our clients.”


Her work with Pivot isn’t finished. While working toward some clear wins for sex workers’ rights and safety, Pacey has begun to direct more of her focus on drug policy reform. Pacey now has a family of her own—a daughter and partner to whom she credits much of her strength and motivation.


And while she’s always been drawn to activism from her first feminist rallies with her mother to fighting on behalf of the country’s most isolated, Pacey doesn’t waver for a second that she’s only doing what she’s capable of.


“It’s a challenge every day and if it wasn’t, I’d think I was asleep at the wheel.”


Profile photos of Katrina by Natasha Kanji

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