Calgary: Safety and the Strolls
Amanda Baxter, the program coordinator at Shift Calgary, explained that historically, the sex trade industry primarily involved street workers, but she’s noticed “a trend towards more online workers.”
“Nowadays, I would say about 10 per cent of sex work is what you see on the street and 90 per cent is what goes on indoors,” Baxter said. “I think it’s the preferred option for men looking to purchase sex as well because they don’t have to worry about cops noticing their license plates.”
But not all sex workers have made the shift to working online.
"It's a scary issue. Calgary used to have a stroll with young girls, but where are those young girls now?"
— Trish Dribnenki, mental health nurse
The Streets of Edmonton
Compared to Calgary, Edmonton has a much higher number of street-based sex workers. Part of this may be due to the fact that Edmonton is grittier and slightly more blue-collared than a city like Calgary, but the RCMP said there are other factors to consider.
Because of the many reserves hedging the city, Edmonton has a large First Nations population. Many of these women (especially ones who grew up abused or suffer from addiction issues) come to the "big city" looking for work - any type of work.
Edmonton is also considered to be a "gateway city" to places in northern Alberta like Fort McMurray, and ends up playing host to a great number of transient, young men with money to spend. These determinants are a few of many reasons why Edmonton sees so many women working the streets.
The RCMP's Project Kare program was established back in 2002 as a response to the alarming number of missing and murdered women in Edmonton. Over the course of the last decade, Project Kare's Joe Verhaeghe has transformed the program into the only one of its kind in all of Canada.
Project Kare operates separately from the Edmonton Police Service, and is strictly a non-enforcement program. Officers like Verhaeghe form and build trusting relationships with women working the streets, and get them registered into a special database. Names, birthdates, photos and hair samples are taken from the women, and are only to be used in emergency investigations by the RCMP if a woman were to go missing.
As of 2013, over 2,000 workers are registered with Project Kare. The van does weekly patrols of the streets of Edmonton to check up on women, offer them supplies (such as condoms, mittens and snacks) and give them a warm ride if they need it.
Above are photographs of previously popular "strolls," or areas where sex workers frequented. The more notable ones in Calgary were areas around the Cecil Hotel downtown, the Town & Country Motor Inn in Forest Lawn and the National Hotel in Inglewood.
Above is a map of the two main strolls currently in Calgary, otherwise known as "C stroll" downtown, and the "T&C stroll" in Forest Lawn. Most other strolls have dried up, which has led many women to pursue online sex work.
Trish Dribnenki, a registered psychiatric nurse, works with the Safeworks program, which is a subset of Alberta Health Services that provides infection prevention and harm reduction services for vulnerable populations such as sex trade workers.
From her own interactions with clients, Dribnenki said another factor to consider is high-rental housing. She said as housing prices in the downtown core continue to increase, areas like Forest Lawn may present a more affordable option for lower-income individuals.
"It's a problem because they're way out in the suburbs and far from any available resources," Dribnenki explained. "I personally haven't seen a huge influx from downtown to Forest Lawn, but I have seen a big influx from on the street to non-existent, which means a lot of them are going online or in-house."
While working online is said to be safer in terms of being able to screen and converse with clients beforehand, the online forum still presents a high risk factor.
Years ago, Calgary’s popular “strolls,” or areas in the city where sex workers predominantly worked, were in the downtown area. “A-stroll,” was located near Eau Claire on 3rd Avenue S.W. where the French Maid strip club used to be. Some more notable low-end strolls existed around the Cecil Hotel, the National Hotel in Inglewood and the East Village.
While “C-stroll,” which is located along Macleod Trail and 15th Avenue S.W. near the Saddledome, is still quite active, many workers have migrated east, making up a relatively new stroll (“T&C stroll”) in Forest Lawn near the Town & Country Motor Inn.
"Forest Lawn is kind of out of downtown and it's perceived as being a little bit quieter, so it’s easier to blend in," Baxter explained. "As housing downtown continues to redevelop, it's a lot harder for girls to get away with standing outside someone's condo building all night."
Former Calgary sex worker Diane said she remembers a period of time about six years ago when police cracked down hard on street workers and the homeless population, which might have attributed to the push to online sex work.
"Cops were really aggressive trying to get rid of people doing drugs on the street," Diane said. "I had to hide for a week because I was so scared."
Detective Paul Rubner with the Calgary Police Service suggested another reason workers have moved to Forest Lawn or are using online mediums, was due to the closing of the French Maid on 3rd Avenue S.W. Rubner described the area back then as “very dense, with low speed roadways and lots of intersections, making it easier to approach people.”
"When the French Maid on 3rd Avenue closed down, a large portion of the girls' customer base disappeared," Rubner explained. "Since that stroll sort of dried up, those girls have now since gone online."
Although anonymity on the part of the woman seems safer, what many don’t realize is whoever is on the other end of the keyboard could be doing the same thing. Rubner said with certain sting operations, police have make dates in “covert capacity” and when they arrive at the location, the woman who was expecting a date is now facing “a couple of guys with badges.”
“They have no idea who’s coming in the door,” Rubner added. “It could have just as easily been someone who wanted to do harm to them. Just because they’re in a hotel, or in their own surroundings doesn’t make it any safer.”
Rubner described a scenario he encountered earlier this year regarding a young woman who had moved to in Calgary to work as an escort in order to support her two children back home in Montreal. Her “boyfriend” (several officials explained if a man is living off the avails of a working woman, even is she directly refers to him as her boyfriend, he is still legally a pimp) had assaulted her from time to time, but never did anything serious enough to warrant a call to the police.
One day, things changed. After a violent argument, the woman’s “boyfriend” was so angry he hit her in the face, cracking one of her cheekbones. The situation grew dire as the man leapt to plug in her hair straightener, and told the battered woman to take her underwear off.
“She knew what was about to happen, so for the first time in her life she started to fight back,” Rubner recalled. “She actually bit the cord in half and was able to make her escape. That’s probably a weekly occurrence that we encounter to varying degrees.”
“It’s not like Pretty Woman," he added. "There’s nothing glamorous about it at all.”
Safeworks nurse Dribnenki said that dangers aside, an equally disconcerting issue is organizations like Safeworks are no longer able to connect or find those in need of support services.
"When they're on the street, at least we can keep track of that and other girls can keep on eye on each other," Dribnenki continued. "It's an even scarier issue now because we can't reach them. We used to have a stroll with young girls, but where are those young girls now?"
“They have no idea who’s coming in the door. It could have just as easily been someone who wanted to do harm to them.”
Detective Rubner said that in his line of work, even if a woman is using a street name – as most of the girls do – at least he can physically see them and talk to them directly. On the Internet, there’s no way for him to know who he’s talking to or what they look like.
inhabited by a transient, low-income population, Calgarians might assume sex work is on the decline.
With the redevelopment of Calgary's city centre and gentrification of notoriously derelict neighbourhoods
Photos by Allison Drinnan and Anna Brooks
Illustration by Anna Brooks
Watch a short video explaining how the Safeworks program operates, what services they offer and their concerns about vulnerable populations in Calgary.
Video by Allison Drinnan and Anna Brooks
“The ability to track, locate and identify women is extremely difficult with online services,” Rubner said. “The women online, they’re posting photos and it might not even be them.”
Watch a mini documentary based on our ride along with RCMP's Project Kare unit in Edmonton. Officers Joe Verhaeghe and Violet MacFarlane took us on a life changing journey patrolling the streets of Edmonton in the dead of night to learn more about the lives of sex workers.