Warning: This story deals with sensitive subject matter.
The woman who was killed in what police say was almost certainly a murder-suicide in Montreal’s Mile End area in early November was a sex worker, and the male suspect who died by suicide was known as violent, advocates say.
According to Stella, a Montreal organization by and for sex workers, the 25-year-old woman victim was an escort who was likely working independently and met up with the man whose name had been circulating in the community as a client to avoid or watch out for.
“We had heard from workers that had seen him that he was increasingly aggressive, denigrating and violent,” said Sandra Wesley, executive director of Stella.
Wesley said workers also reported to the organization and to escort agencies that the 31-year-old suspect had been showing signs of unstable mental health, and often “seemed to be blacked out.”
As word got around of his escalating behaviour, many women had decided to no longer see him as a client, Wesley said.
The incident happened on Nov. 5 shortly before 3:15 a.m., when police responded to a 911 call from an apartment on Saint-Urbain Street near Fairmount Avenue in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.
Police found both bodies at the residence. Both the man and woman had marks of violence on their bodies and were declared dead at the scene.
The woman had gone to see the man that evening in the context of her work, according to Wesley.
Montreal police say they can’t yet call the incident a femicide because the investigation is still ongoing, but they say they believe the male suspect killed the woman and then died by suicide.
“What we’re seeing in sex work is women increasingly working independently, without an escort agency, which decreases protection,” Wesley said.
According to the Stella spokesperson, when workers work with an agency, they get a driver who also doubles as security to drop them off at their destination.
That driver then waits for the woman to communicate that she feels safe and has been paid, and then stays near the location and picks her back up when she’s done.
“There are various security protocols in place when working with an agency. A driver is usually a big deterrent for these incidents.”
Wesley also added that when women work with agencies, they get access to a “bad client” list that gets constantly updated as workers report incidents.
When escorts work independently, which they mostly do for more pay and freedom, they don’t necessarily have access to that safety information.
Sex work laws in Canada
Canada’s current prostitution laws came into effect in 2014 (Bill C-36) under a Conservative government with the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act and the enactment amended the criminal code. The legislation’s provisions decriminalized the sale of sex but criminalized all other aspects.
Purchasing sexual services, communicating for the purpose of offering sexual services, receiving financial or other benefits from the purchase of sexual services, advertising the sale of sex and recruiting a person for sex work were all made illegal under criminal law.
Sex workers and legal experts argue that Canada’s sex work laws are prohibitive and do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do — instead of protecting “human dignity,” the laws push sex workers into dangerous situations by criminalizing nearly every aspect of their job.
Nearly one-third of sex workers say they don’t call 911 due to fear of police: study
A 2021 study found 31 per cent of sex workers in Canada do not report violent incidents and crimes to police because of the current criminalization framework.
Conducted by UBC’s Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) and the University of Ottawa’s Department of Criminology, researchers interviewed 200 sex workers from five cities across Canada: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Sudbury, and Surrey, B.C.
In each city they found that current federal law discouraged sex workers from calling police to report a violent or dangerous situation.
The most commonly reported source of assistance in an emergency was other sex workers, followed by friends, family and other clients.
— with files from Laura Hensley and Claire Fenton, Global News