West End Sex Work
History Project 1975-85

The expulsion of sex workers from Vancouver's West End, 1975-1985: A cautionary tale

On July 4, 1984, the Chief Justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, Allan McEachern, ruled that sex workers on the Davie Street stroll were a “blatant, aggressive, and disorderly public nuisance.” He chastised those who “defiled our city” by “taking over the streets and sidewalks for the purpose of prostitution.”

To remedy what he called the “urban tragedy” of the West End, Justice McEachern banned female, male, and trans prostitutes from their own neighbourhood. His unprecedented ruling was championed by then mayor Mike Harcourt, Attorney General Brian Smith, and Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre, Pat Carney. Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE) and their vigilante posse, Shame the Johns, were elated about the purge of a ‘de facto red light district’ from their largely white, seaside, middle-class enclave. Civic officials and moral entrepreneurs of all political stripes keen to cleanse and whiten the city in advance of Expo ’86, celebrated an end to their ‘war on hookers.’

Importantly, past relations between sex workers and other Vancouver residents were not always adversarial. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the sex trade in both Vancouver and Victoria represented an essential engine of economic growth, with legendary brothels operating openly (with upwards of 40 in Vancouver until the 1920s).

As Trina Ricketts et al. conclude in their study, History of Sex Work: Vancouver, “Sex workers have always been, and remain to this day an integral part of our city and have contributed greatly to its colour, diversity, and personality.”

In Vancouver, relations soured and became overtly acrimonious after the Penthouse Cabaret and other off-street locales were raided by police and closed in the mid-1970s. As the West End stroll swelled in size, anti-prostitution organizing gathered steam. By the mid-1980s, evidence of the robust community built by ‘hookers on Davie’ had all but disappeared.

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