Challenging Trafficking in Canada Policy Brief

In September 2010, Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the Canadian Criminal Code prohibitions against keeping a common bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating for the purposes of prostitution violated sex workers’ Charter rights to freedom of expression and security of the person. The ruling was received by sex workers as a big, hopeful step forward after years organizing and fighting for increased safety and the decriminalization of their work. Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott, and Amy Lebovitch had, at great personal cost, taken on the federal and provincial governments to fight for their right to safer working conditions. On December 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada echoed Justice Himels’ ruling, finding that the laws that criminalized aspects of sex work were unconstitutional and gave the government one year to redesign the laws in order to reflect sex workers’ rights or let the laws expire.

 However, after largely symbolic consultations that centred narratives of violence, victimization, and deeply conservative views of sexual morality, Justice Minister Peter MacKay and the then-in-power Conservative Government characterized sex work as inherently dangerous, ignoring the ways that bad laws create such unsafe working conditions. In June 2013 Minister MacKay tabled The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act criminalizing the purchase of sex, communication for the purpose of selling sex, gaining material benefit from sex work, and advertising sexual services (more on this bill here). According the government, sex workers were all victims of trafficking and in “need of rescue” and rehabilitation services through religious and non-governmental organizations. In practice this has mostly looked like the defunding of organizations that centre sex workers’ rights and arrests and deportation of migrant sex workers in Canada.

This brings us to the policy briefing Challenging Trafficking in Canada which was presented at York University in November 2017. Panelists Elene Lam, the director of the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, Syed Hussan, the coordinator of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Andrea Sterling, the board chair at Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, and Evelyn Encalada Grez, organizer and cofounder of Justice for Migrant Workers discussed the ongoing effects of Canada’s new sex work laws.

Introducing the panel, briefing organizer and co-author, Nicole McFadyen contextualized the briefing and set the stage for understanding why and how racialized women have carried the greatest burden since the new laws were implemented in Canada. Anti-trafficking organizers have led a successful campaign conflating trafficking with all forms of sex work.

As Andrea Sterling from Maggie’s showed, anti-trafficking groups have made bank on newly reserved funds for rescuing and rehabilitating victims of trafficking. For example, Toronto’s Heart House received significant funds from the government for such work, though they’re unable to fill the beds they have reserved for such work as they’re unable to find victims who meet their criteria. Meanwhile Maggie’s receives no funds despite applying for them and despite their long, established, and effective work in Toronto. Further, relations between sex workers and police services remain seriously fraught, though police have benefited immensely from the funding reserved to help sex workers and victims of trafficking. Sterling discussed how volunteers from Maggie’s had to form ad hoc search parties when a community member and person who accessed services at Maggies went missing. She was eventually found dead after months of the police not taking her disappearance seriously.

Syed Hussan situated the problems and failures of the new laws within the broader conversation of migrant workers’ rights. Much of the discourse that informed the formation of the new laws characterized migrant women in particular as in need of state intervention and as better off in their home countries, regardless of what these women had to say of their experience or their work. Hussan showed how migrant workers in Canada face unsafe and abusive work environments even when they access work through Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers’ programs. The programs themselves are designed to be coercive and offer few rights for workers. I’m reminded of migrant workers who traveled to rural communities in Saskatchewan and the precarity of their lives as they depended on the goodwill of their employers. In one situation, a woman from Central America was sent home not because she was doing a poor job but because her employer didn’t like how she spent her leisure time at the local bar. To Hussan, the definition of trafficking appears best reflected in the relationship migrant workers have to the Canadian state. That is, the Canadian government itself is trafficking migrant workers.

Evelyn Encalada Grez historicized Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program as an extension of Canada’s foreign aid efforts. Attitudes toward and policies governing migrant workers in Canada need to be understand in the context of broader histories of migration, a person’s right to migrate, their right not to migrate, and histories of slavery and structural oppression. In the current culture, Canadian employers benefit most from employing migrant workers. Workers are unable to say “no” to unsafe labour or they risk not only losing their job but being forced out of Canada. Encalada Grez shared the story of a Mexican migrant worker in Canada who recently lost his legs during a work accident. Migrant workers are put at risk for the sake of Canadian benefit and comfort–their bodies marked as worth risking. To combat the ways Canadian employers can abuse migrant workers, Encalada Grez suggested workers receive Permanent Resident status immediately upon arrival into Canada.

Elene Lam focused on the failings of the new laws and how they’ve been used to target racialized sex workers specifically. Discourses surrounding trafficking deny the diversity and fullness of experience and the views of migrant sex workers. They are paternalistic and racist. While the laws were introduced as a way to protect vulnerable people from abuse, abduction, and rape, what they’ve actually done is enforced state power and disempowered sex workers–which, one suspects, was the intent of the Conversative government despite their show of concern.

For sex workers and their allies, the last seven+ years have been emotionally arduous, heartbreaking, and deeply enraging. The Canadian government had an opportunity to listen to the needs of those impacted by the legislation but they did not. The new laws do not reflect the spirit of the rulings in the Ontario Superior Court and the Supreme Court of Canada. To make matters worse, the current Liberal government has failed to address these issues, abandoning sex workers to the Conservatives poorly considered legislation.

Read the full policy brief Challenging Trafficking in Canada here.

Dr. Emma LaRocque on Resistance, Reconciliation, Decolonization, and living a Feminist Métis life in Academia

On October 5, 2017 Dr. Emma LaRocque presented a keynote lecture for the Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies programme at York University. Her lecture, titled “From Resistance to Reconciliation: Ruminations on Decolonization from a Feminist Métis Academic,” was met with much anticipation. Prolific writer, poet, and academic, Dr. LaRocque’s contribution to scholarship on Indigeneity, Native/Indigenous Studies, colonialism, feminism, decolonization, and resistance is widely read and internationally celebrated. The wide and international resonance of LaRocque’s work was evident in the crowd she drew, with scholars and activists from all over the world commenting on the ways her work has been taken up in places such as India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Her work and experience as a Métis woman surviving in the Canadian Prairies resonates for many, especially for other racialized and colonized women.

Dr. LaRocque’s has been in the trenches, resisting colonialism and its effects for decades. She’s done so within academia and was integral to the formation of a Native Studies departments at the University of Manitoba. However, her activism has never been bound to academia. Her first works were published before she began to develop a career as a scholar and she has maintained a strong presence within Native resistance movements. She’s paid a price for her work, frequently being targeted by powerful individuals and organizations who demanded she be fired from her posting at University of Manitoba on more than one occasion.  Her introduction at the lecture told how accomplished she is and the authority with which she speaks.

It is from her position as a seasoned Métis feminist activist that LaRocque delivered her lecture, critiquing Canada’s current obsession with reconciliation following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which wrapped up in December 2015 (to read a summary of the report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here).

In particular, LaRocque is concerned with the ways reconciliation is currently being taken up in Canadian discourse. She wonders what reconciliation’s relationship is to decolonization and warns that reconciliation’s is only valuable if it produces and honours justice for Indigenous people, the freedom of Indigenous people, and the Human Rights of Indigenous people. Within the discourse of reconciliation, it is important to foster and protect the legacy and present reality of Indigenous resistance across Turtle Island.

Much of LaRocque’s legacy has been to disrupt “official” historical narratives of Canada and their misrepresentation of Indigenous people. And while she knows that telling the truth about colonialism is integral to Indigenous people’s survival, she is suspicious of the call to “reconcile”—as if there are two equally culpable parties who merely need to “kiss and makeup.” First, such a representation relies on an equality that has never existed. And second, the wrongs committed against Indigenous people in Canada have been direct and specific. It is the government who named and categorized Indigenous people as one monolithic group. However, in reality Indigenous communities are diverse as are their experiences of violence and dispossession in relation to colonialism. Performing heart surgery on a human who has a healthy heart but has a collapsed lung is not only unhelpful, but dangerous. A one-size-fits-all approach to addressing colonialism serves settlers and governments much more than it does Indigenous people. And yet, as LaRocque argues, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report calls for Indigenous people to neatly “put the past behind them.” How easy it would be if, rather than meeting specific wrongs with particular rights, the past could be forgotten. Such an approach to history, as LaRocque said, distorts Canadian experience as well as Indigenous experience. Not only that, it distorts current realities as Indigenous people continue to experience horrific violence all over the country, such as Thunder Bay, Ontario and North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Not to mention the cases in which Indigenous women and girls are disappeared, missing, or murdered—a problem so rampant that an inquiry is underway to study why it keeps happening and almost always with impunity.

LaRocque argued that Indigenous people and settlers do not need to forget the past to move forward. But everything has to change. There will be no reconciliation without justice and the political liberation of Indigenous people. And perhaps reconciliation itself is colonialist, as she pointed out. It rings as a Christian practice in which Indigenous people are mandated to forgive.

While Canada has attempted to name and categorize Indigenous people as a monolithic group, the Truth and Reconciliation Commision individualized and “psychologized” Indigenous people focusing on their hurt and pain as it has been recognized in relation to certain experiences such as residential schools. But as LaRocque shared, public school was a hellish experience for her growing up in northern Alberta. And it continues to be a harrowing and dangerous experience for Indigenous youth who are often forced to leave their communities to live in a settler-dominated place where they can attend school. Why did public school teachers force their Indigenous students to stop speaking Cree, as LaRocque experienced. Why do Indigenous youth encounter racism in the classroom today? Why is violence against Indigenous people rampant in settler communities? “Really, who is the iller of the two, settlers or Indigenous people?,” LaRocque challenged. “Who really needs to be phsychologised?”

In concluding her lecture, Dr. LaRocque asked how resistance can continue under the pressure of reconciliation. While reconciliation feels safe and comforting to some, decolonization is revolutionary and frightening. And whatever decolonization looks like, it can never be determined by colonizers. In response to a question from the audience about what to do with the anger one feels over colonialism, LaRocque said “If you do not find constructive channels for your anger, you will die” and added that being angry is not wrong but necessary and “means you’re paying attention.” For LaRocque, her work has functioned as a life-saving channel. “I would have died,” she said, “had I not had poetry and other ways to express that anger.”

LaRocque’s anger has created lifelines for many. The channels she’s expertly harnessed have brought her to unsuspecting places (if you ever get the chance to hear her tell the story about how she got tenure, do not pass that up). Her resistance and writing will continue to light the way as her work becomes more known. While she has an international audience of scholars and activists around the globe she hopes that her work will gain more attention here at home. “I’m waiting for the historians to find me,” she said. So there you go, historians. It’s time to read some Emma LaRocque.

Parvati Raghuram on “Race and Feminist Care Ethics: Intersectionality as Method”

On Thursday September 21, 2017 visiting scholar Parvati Raghuram of the Open University in the UK presented on Intersectionality as a method and Feminist Care Ethics. Hosted by York University’s Geography program and organized by Jolin Joseph through the Gender, Migration, and Contemporary (Im)Mobilities in Asia lecture series, the talk drew a wide range of scholars from varying disciplines, including a large group of graduate students, myself included (the promise of post-lecture food may or may not have also been a drawing point).

She historicized the topic of Feminist Care Ethics, relaying the ways colonialism has ordered care and the flows of “those who do the caring” and “those who are cared for.” Raghuram gave a broad picture of Feminist Care Ethics, sharing that feminist scholars have centered care as an important part of women’s and racialized people’s experience in colonialist and capitalist societies. Historically women have been placed in caring roles and often the assumption is that women’s caring work provides a normative and universal good to societies. However, the caring work and its devaluation has been integral to the maintenance of asymmetrical relations of power—a characteristic of colonialism. These histories of care also place white women at the pinnacle of the “caring hierarchy” as the most competent carers in relation to Black and Indigenous women and Women of Colour (BIWOC). Such stratifications of caring work are reflected in compensation, financial or otherwise.

Parvati Raghuram located the 1980s as a particularly significant time in the formation of Feminist Care Ethics and studies of care. Views on the topic have continued to develop as scholars and activists have considered women in relation to one another–such as middle and upper class white women mothers and the diverse carers they employ to care for their homes, children, and the elderly. Such relations mark those in proximity to white women as worthy of care, while BIWOC care-workers are away from family as they perform caring work for white families. These structures produce care deficits in certain communities.

In the 1990s, there were significant shifts in analyses of care as the focus moved from labour to affect and emotion. Scholars integrated questions about how affects structure, enforce, and interrupt relations of power in the context of caring work. Looking at affect may also interrupt pre-occupations over exploitation as carers offer counter-affects such as that they enjoy and are fulfilled by the work they do. This brings to mind Laura Agustin’s work on sexual commerce and the ways that sex workers often resist concerns over exploitation by explaining the freedoms and benefits of their work. In a world ordered by colonialism, racialized and otherwise minoritized women’s work options are always informed by various forms of exploitation and limited choices.

Another significant piece of “care competency,” a term Raghuram used throughout her presentation, involves not only race and class-based ordering but also cultural awareness. Across culture, care looks different and sets of affective structures are embedded in culture and language. Disability scholars have done a lot of work around this as well, showing that care competency may also be subjective based on abilities and disabilities. Therefore, what feels like caring in one context may not be caring in another. Further, care shapes identity. Your carers tell you who you are and what sort of care you can or cannot expect to receive.

Raghuram’s use of Intersectionality as a method to understand orders of care was an intervention into feminist scholarship and the ways we must flesh out the complexities of Feminist Care Ethic. While putting forward a Feminist Care Ethic can be useful in answering questions about improving care work, it needs to be developed in fulsome and context-specific ways. A primary concern of feminist scholarship is the ways our work can serve the communities we engage with. Prioritizing the service of community above all distinguishes feminist research from non-feminist scholarship. This priority shapes our approaches to writing, researching, and teaching. Raghuram noted that this concern is at the forefront of her mind, as she relayed her experience teaching incarcerated students through Open University and her concern that the communities she works with are able to access her writing—both in the sense that they understand what they’re reading and in her considerations of where to publish. As she argued, the communities we work with deserve fulsome, context-specific, and appropriate Feminist Care Ethics.

In responses to Parvati Raghuram’s lecture, the audience asked questions regarding care and climate change, hope in crises, and what to do about exploitative working conditions. Raghuram informed her audience that much of the austerity measures the Global North is experiencing in relation to caring work has already been done in the Global South and, as a result, it would be wise to look to the South as an example of how to do things differently and better as carers and policy-makers have a fuller view in the South. Additionally, in response to worries over exploitation, Raghuram encouraged her audience to keep in mind that while it is popular to research transnational flows, most caring work is done at home rather than abroad.

On the subject of the exploitative nature of caring work and ending exploitative working practices, I am reminded of the relevance of self-reflexivity as a feminist practice and interrogating relationships between researchers and the subjects of research. Checking our own worries and concerns about the wellbeing of our community-partners and those we research is important as our own feelings can be a barrier to hearing communities we’ve marked as exploited. I’m thinking of Chandra Mohanty’s and Gayatri Spivak’s interventions in White/Western dominated feminist scholarship that forces the “Third World,” Subaltern, and racialized woman to meet our standards of agency. As Spivak challenges in “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” much is lost when scholars center their subjectivities and cultures while producing knowledge and constructing “Others.”

Much thanks to York’s Geography Department and Jolin Joseph for organising and to Parvati Raghuram for the lecture. Raghuram continues to visit York and share some of her research and writing on gender and skilled work in the Information Technology industry as well as other projects with the Economic and Social Research Council.


Agustín, Laura Maria. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. New York: Macmillan, 2007.

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (eds). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, London: Macmillan, 1988.

Too Supportive: On Fostering Allied Behaviour on Social Media with Jessica DeWitt

 Jessica DeWitt and I put this presentation together for the #Beyond150CA Twitter Conference in August 2017.

We saw the presentation as an opportunity to respond to comments and questions that emerged from a roundtable we participated in on Canadian History & Social Media—a discussion that also included scholars Andrea Eidinger, Daniel Ross, Alexandre Turgeon, Adam Gaudry, and was chaired by Sean Kheraj at the Canadian Historical Association meeting in May, 2017.

Responses to the roundtable ranged from a) questions on how to foster allyship and support between historians, b) questions regarding best practices for addressing discrimination on Social Media and in our work/academic communities; and c) questions on the consequences of a supportive/allied approach, particularly if a focus on support and allyship has the potential to shut down critique & educational discourse.

The latter perceives supportive/allied behaviour as an impediment to dialogical methods of learning near & dear to Historians’ pedagogy and discourse. At times critics have called the style of interaction as “too supportive” and held that such relationships prevent challenging conversations.

As longtime and long-distance friends who met in grad school, Social Media has functioned as a space to maintain our friendship & has been a platform for supporting each other’s work. The support networks organized by minoritized scholars online have been integral to our experience getting through graduate studies. And purposeful supportive interactions have facilitated a great deal of networking opportunities with symbiotic relations between scholars and community.

Subjectivities differ significantly across our traditionally Anglo-Canadian & masculinized discipline, not to mention the subject positions of the historical actors represented in our research. To create an accurate and representative historical record that captures the widest swath of human experience, it is paramount that scholars make spaces for difference, support minoritized scholars, & develop purposeful allyship that serves minoritized scholars.

Minoritized scholars report experiencing discrimination, microaggressions, and violence in academia—impediments to our participation that occur on Social Media and in our places of work (Henry, Dua, James, Kobayashi, Li, Ramos, & Smith; Chan; Yudkevich, Altbach, & Rumbley; Mayazumi). Discrimination is an energy drain and distracts us from our work. At times it can result in scholars leaving academia; the effects of such losses are unknown.

Purposeful & relational support systems enable minoritized scholars and diversify scholarship, strengthening our understanding of history. As junior scholars, forming solidarities across difference, being supported by mentors (particularly women and BIPOC scholars and community members who, time & time again, are the ones who make time for such labour), amplifying each other’s work, carving out spaces for unexpected voices, and holding one another accountable has not only made our work possible but stronger.

We propose an approach informed by the various communities (de-colonial, queer, feminist, anti-racist, labour justice, and disability justice) who have made spaces for us.  Too Supportive 1Too Supportive 2Too Supportive 3Tweet 9Too Supportive 4Tweet 11Too Supportive 5Tweet 12Too Supportive 6Tweet 13Too Supportive 7


Chan, Jennifer. “Out of Asia: Topologies of Racism in Canada.” Workplace 27 (2016):

Henry, Frances, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda S. Smith. The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities. Vancouver: UBC, 2017.

Mayuzumi, Kimine. “Navigating Orientalism: Asian Women Faculty in the Canadian Academy.” Race Ethnicity and Education 18, no. 2 (2015), 277-296.

Yudkevich, Maria, Philip G. Altbach, and Laura E. Rumbley. International Faculty in Higher Education:Comparative Perspectives on Recruitment, Integration, and Impact. Routledge, 2017.