You cannot but be impressed by Nikki Thomas. As the executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada, she is an articulate speaker who offers a convincing argument that the country's prostitution laws don't make sense and need to be changed.
Thomas, a panelist at a world affairs conference I attended in Toronto in February, told the audience how when she was 26 (about five years ago) she began work as a prostitute to pay for her university tuition. Subsequently, she attained a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto and plans to pursue graduate studies.
The main point she made that day, and one that has been made on countless occasions, is that prostitution, which has existed since Biblical times, will never be eliminated. And, if so, then sex-trade workers have the right to work in a safe environment.
"We must convince people that sex workers are not to be feared, not to be considered worthless, and not to be looked at as less than human," she has said.
Hence, Thomas cheered the recent ruling by the Court of Appeal of Ontario that has declared several of Canada's anti-prostitution laws to be unconstitutional, because they restrict the right of prostitutes to protect themselves.
If the ruling stands -- and it is anticipated that the Harper government will appeal, so that the case will ultimately be deliberated by the Supreme Court -- prostitutes will be able to hire body guards and drivers and brothels may be legal across the country.
Other voices have denounced this decision, arguing that it will merely contribute to the continuing exploitation of women who become trapped in the sex trade out of desperation or coercion. Moreover, the Ontario Court of Appeal's decision did not strike down the law that still makes it illegal to openly solicit customers on the street.
Historically, we have been down this road before. Canada has never been without prostitution, though the fight to combat the "social evil," as it was referred to, began in earnest in the 1880s as cities like Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg confronted the dark side of urbanization. A whole new breed of social reformers emerged determined to combat the poverty, crime, and corruption that had engulfed cities.
"Underneath the seemingly moral surface of our national life," declared a Canadian Salvation Army journal in 1887, "there is a terrible undercurrent of unclean vice with all its concomitant evils of ruined lives, desolated hearth-stones, prostituted bodies, decimated conditions, and early dishonoured graves."
Ridding the cities of prostitution was one of the first orders of business. As we know now, eliminating it proved impossible. "Prostitution always has been, is everywhere, and always will be," the adage of the times went. Still, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers and police (some of them, at any rate) were vigilant in their efforts to stamp it out, or, at the very least, to segregate and control it.
That was what happened in Winnipeg in 1909. The city's chief of police, "Big" John McRae, decided that he would never permanently solve the prostitution problem and concluded that segregation was the answer. "There is no city I know which is free from it," he later testified at a provincial Royal Commission on vice. "It is like the poor, evil is always with us."
He sent for Minnie Woods, the head madam in the city, affectionately known as "Queen of the Harlots," and after lengthy negotiations, it was decided that the new red-light district would be on two streets in the North End working-class neighbourhood of Point Douglas.
Neither the chief nor Woods bothered to ask the residents already living in the area what they thought about this idea. Within days, a real estate agent named John Beaman, apparently on a tip from McRae, bought up many of the inexpensive houses on these two streets. He then proceeded to sell them back to Woods and her friends for steep prices. By most accounts, Beaman was reported to have made an exorbitant profit of $70,000 on these transactions, though there is no evidence to suggest that McRae received a kickback. In any event, by 1910, there were 50 brothels operating in Point Douglas.
While Minnie Woods managed to stay in business well into the 1930s, Winnipeg's more upstanding citizens were hardly impressed by McRae's actions or the poor publicity the city received because of it. Winnipeg was soon labelled "the wickedest city in the Dominion."
There has been a tendency by novelists, popular historians and old movies to romanticize the brothel business of this era with its elegant furniture, expensive whiskey and high-class beautiful harlots. But the truth of the matter was that then and now most women who worked in brothels did so out of desperation and poverty, or were forced to do so by unscrupulous pimps and madams.
Many were destitute immigrant girls with few other options, like a young Russian-Jewish woman named Ethel, who was forced to work as a prostitute in Winnipeg in 1910 by Louis Liew, who was also a newcomer. He married Ethel with false promises and then threatened to beat her if she did not do what he wanted. After about two months, she was rescued by a friend from the old country, who happened to hear Liew bragging about his exploits. There are dozens of tragic tales like this and many which are far worse. Ethel was able to start her life over again; other women once involved in the trade became alcoholics or addicted to cocaine and morphine, cutting their wretched lives short. The law did little to protect them.
Eventually, segregated brothel areas were shut down in Winnipeg and elsewhere. Yet this did not halt the sex trade, which was merely moved underground and out of the sight of the police, moral reformers and other upstanding citizens.
And so now we have seemingly come full circle. Nikki Thomas, who by her account chose freely to work as a prostitute, may be correct: Legalized brothels, like they have in Amsterdam, among other cities, are the answer to protecting some prostitutes in Canada from harm. But even in Amsterdam legalized prostitution has not eliminated exploitation, victimization and tragedy for many defenceless women -- and we should not expect anything different if Winnipeg's red-light district is reborn once more.
Now &Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. Levine's latest book is William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny.