City council is one vote away from ending the municipal licensing of escort agencies and body rub parlours.
On Wednesday, the executive policy committee cast a unanimous vote to remove the adult-oriented businesses, as well as their practitioners, from the Doing Business in Winnipeg bylaw, repealing their licensing requirements. The change still requires full council approval.
Prior to the vote, several members of the Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition told EPC they want the licensing rules to come to an end, primarily so they can be treated like other types of workers. However, some fear the current proposal is destined to undermine their work.
"(This would) further enforce conditions or stigma… and (it) seeks to end demand (for our business) and our means of livelihood. We don’t want licensing and a bylaw that separates us from other businesses on a basis of stigma, control and surveillance," said Austin, who uses they/them pronouns and did not provide their last name.
A City of Winnipeg report states the changes align with a goal to reduce demand for the sex trade.
The report notes municipal officials could also attempt to educate key groups to help prevent human trafficking. Austin said such efforts are often too broadly applied and threaten to result in a crackdown against sex workers.
Another member of the coalition said that could force sex workers into hiding, making them more vulnerable.
"These tools instill fear for sex workers and force us underground. They cause an environment of indifference, stigma and violence towards sex workers," said Amy, who did not want her last name published.
Repealing the bylaw would not force the 31 businesses who have such licences within Winnipeg to shut down, a city spokesperson confirmed.
"The recommendation to remove the licensing requirement… does not affect whether or not these businesses operate," Adam Campbell said in an emailed statement.
The EPC decision followed pleas from two prominent community organizations who assist victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They told committee members these types of businesses are clearly linked to that exploitation — which the city was profiting off by licensing.
"Let’s not make pimps and traffickers entrepreneurs in Winnipeg," said Diane Redsky, executive director of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
Redsky told the committee repealing the bylaw sends a clear message "women and girls are not for sale." That decision is especially important for some Indigenous women and girls, who are over-represented in Winnipeg’s sex industry, she said.
"It is really important to understand the power dynamic in the sex industry… it is not Indigenous women and girls who benefit."
Joy Smith, who runs the Joy Smith Foundation to combat human trafficking, said the city’s initial decision to license the industry gave it an unwarranted legitimacy. Keeping the licences in place would leave the city at legal risk, since buying sex is against federal law, she added.
"It’s time to take a stand and to say, ‘Here in the city of Winnipeg, we will not allow our children to be victimized and bought and sold,’" said Smith.
Mayor Brian Bowman told media he supports the call to stop licensing the businesses based on the feedback from those key community leaders.
"They’ve spent years looking at and considering these matters… I think that (the fact) we have (Diane Redsky’s) and Joy Smith’s (support) speaks volumes to the strength of the report (calling for the change)," said Bowman.
The mayor said it would be difficult to find unanimous support on any matter related to adult businesses. However, he stressed he is still open to considering feedback from sex workers and others.
"This would be obviously a very big change and a historic change… there is additional work to do," he said.
The Winnipeg Police Service declined comment Wednesday on whether or not it supports the changes. In an email, police said the licensing decision "won’t affect the efforts or investigations of our counter exploitation unit."
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.