Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, is scheduled to give the keynote speech at an upcoming conference about resource extraction at Simon Fraser University (SFU). The State of Extraction, set to take place from March 27-29, 2015, aims to bring together Indigenous leadership, academics, artists, public intellectuals, activists, and the general public to address “the new face of resource capitalism in Canada… and the lack of debate about such issues.” Ironically, a “lack of debate” is precisely what some groups want.
After publishing an unforgiving report on the sex industry and the left’s unwillingness to challenge what Hedges calls “the quintessential expression of global capitalism,” the bestselling author received an email from conference organizer, Stephen Collis.
The email, sent on March 11, explained that Hedges’ article “set off a ‘firestorm.” Collis writes that, despite his “own knowledge of this issue [being] highly limited… the views expressed in [the] piece are highly controversial.”
Collis said in emails that he was informed by “groups opposed to abolition and in favour of harm reduction/legalization” that the arguments Hedges highlights in his report are “not supported by most organizers and organizations in the [Downtown Eastside of Vancouver], who have found comments in the article offensive and prejudiced.” He told Hedges, via email, that “We have been inundated with complaints around your appearance at the State of Extraction conference, both from individuals and organizations.”
While Collis may have heard from those who are opposed to the ideas put forth in Hedges’ report, which outlines a feminist critique of the sex industry, he had not yet heard from those groups and individuals who agree with Hedges’ assessment that the fight against prostitution is a “fight against a dehumanizing neoliberalism that begins, but will not end, with the subjugation of impoverished girls and women.”
Collis wrote, in his initial email, that “the stakes of the conference are premised on solidarity with frontline and marginalized (and largely Indigenous) communities facing continuing colonial dispossession — a loss of agency, and a loss of voice,” informing Hedges that, in an effort to “stand with marginalized indigenous communities,” he intended to cancel the journalist’s keynote speech.
To be clear, those who petitioned Hedges’ talk are individuals and groups who lobby to legalize the purchase of sex. Pivot Legal, Collis told me, was one of the primary voices involved in opposing the Hedges’ involvement in the conference. Pivot played a significant role in the Bedford case, advocating for the full decriminalization of prostitution, specifically, the decriminalization of pimps, johns, and brothel owners. What else seems clear is that groups and individuals (there were only about seven or eight emails received in protest, I’m told) who support the legalization of prostitution have a vested interest in silencing dissent and in no-platforming anyone who dares suggest that prostitution constitutes a violation of women’s human rights.
Lee Lakeman, a prominent activist and longtime member of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (recently retired), points out that the information Collis received is erroneous. “There is no Indigenous community that has called for the legalization of prostitution,” she says. Lakeman also says she doesn’t know which “frontline workers” he is referring to. “Obviously women working against violence against women [who oppose the sex industry] are frontline workers…”
In fact, there are many local frontline organizations, women’s groups, and activists — including women from the sex trade — who oppose the legalization of prostitution, advocating instead for a model that decriminalizes the prostituted but criminalizes pimps, johns, and brothel owners (a model recently adopted in Canada, commonly referred to as the Nordic model), including Vancouver Rape Relief, Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, The Native Women’s Association of Canada, Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre (WAVAW), Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI), Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), and EVE, just to name a few…
Lakeman agrees that liberals too-often refuse to take a stand in difficult times, referencing a quote from Bernadette Devlin, who once said, “in the absence of a fence to sit on , the weakly hearted liberals will go about the business of building one.”
Lee feels a decision to cancel Hedges’ presentation would reveal SFU as “an institution that accepts complicity with the systems of imperialism and colonialism that prop up the exploitation of women.”