TORONTO, Canada — Canadian pig farmer Robert Pickton is the latest in a long line of serial killers — Jack the Ripper the most notorious among them — who hunted prostitutes.
For years Pickton prowled Vancouver’s downtown Eastside neighborhood, offering drugs and money to women working the streets. He would take them to his farm, hack their bodies to pieces and throw them to his pigs.
He was charged with the murder of 26 women. His trial in 2007 heard Pickton boasted of killing 49 women, which means he may be the deadliest serial killer in Canadian history. He was sentenced to life in prison.
His sadistic murder spree now hovers over a closely-watched court case on whether Canada’s prostitution law jeopardizes the safety of sex-workers.
An Ontario court struck down the law last fall as a danger to prostitutes. The federal government is now asking a higher court to quash the landmark ruling. If the Ontario Court of Appeal doesn’t do so, all aspects of prostitution, including brothels, will become legal in Ontario. And when a federal law no longer applies to the most populous province, its days nationwide are numbered.
The appeal, which began Monday and runs all week, has seen some colorful characters grace the Toronto court’s staid interiors. Dominatrix Terri Jean Bedford, who successfully challenged the prostitution law in the lower court, has been showing up in a black leather skirt and high boots, brandishing a riding crop.
“Prime Minister Stephen Harper, you are a very bad boy,” she said in front of reporters outside the courtroom, flicking her work tool.
The current law is a peculiar concoction. Prostitution, per se, is legal. But virtually all activities related to it are not. Brothels, for instance, are illegal. Also illegal is communicating for the purposes of prostitution. Living off the earnings of prostitution will likewise land you in jail.
In the lower court, Justice Susan Himel ruled that these restrictions endanger prostitutes by forcing them to work on the street, and by making it illegal for them to hire drivers or bodyguards. The law therefore violates the right to personal security as guaranteed by the constitution. Prostitutes also testified it forces them into furtive and hurried contacts with customers, with little time to assess who might pose a danger.
“I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public” if prostitutes were allowed safer working environments, Himel ruled.
Bedford testified that while working as a street prostitute, she was “raped and gang-raped too many times to talk about,” beaten on the head with a baseball bat, and tortured. “When a streetwalker goes to meet a john, she never knows what will happen to her,” Bedford said. Yet whenever she tried to work indoors, she was charged for keeping, or being an inmate of, a “common bawdy house.”
A 2006 report by Parliament’s standing committee on justice and human rights noted that between 1994 and 2003, at least 79 prostitutes in Canada were killed. Elliott Leyton, an expert in serial killers, told the lower court of those who have prayed on prostitutes in Canada and abroad, including Pickton and Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, who killed at least 48 women, most of them prostitutes, in Washington and Oregon. Ridgway pleaded guilty in 2003.
The Pickton case in British Columbia also made clear that bias against sex workers by police significantly increases the risks prostitutes face. Vancouver police and the RCMP, Canada’s national police force, were told as early as 1997 by a number of sources that Pickton might be responsible for the growing number of missing prostitutes. In 1997, he was charged with trying to murder a prostitute at his farm, but the charges were dropped because the woman’s heavy drug use made her an unreliable witness.
One tipster in 1999 told police that Pickton had a freezer on his farm filled with human meat. Pickton was interviewed by police in 2000, consented to a search of his farm, but police never conducted one. Police have since apologized for botching the investigation, and British Columbia’s provincial government has called a public inquiry on how it all went wrong.
At the court of appeal, the federal government is arguing that prostitution is a dangerous job, no matter how it is practiced. The law tries to discourage this inherently risky job by cracking down on the johns and pimps who buy and sell women’s bodies, the federal lawyers argue.
The five judges on the appeal panel so far don’t sound like they’re buying the federal argument.
Justice David Doherty said it seems “self-evident” that a law that bans brothels and the hiring of security guards exposes sex-workers to danger. He said it’s no mystery why prostitutes would say, “I’m at much greater risk because I can’t take the security steps that anyone else can take in any other business in the country.”
Prostitution has been decriminalized, and brothels allowed, in Germany, New Zealand, Australia and parts of Nevada, to name only a few places. Judging by the reaction so far of justices on Ontario’s court of appeal, Canada may soon be joining them.