“Vast majority” of sex workers experience violence
Kelsey Louise Felker’s name can now sadly be added to the ever-growing list of sex workers who have been killed or are missing in Canada.
At a vigil in memory of Felker in front of Kitchener City Hall Monday night, Kelley*, a sex worker and long-time friend of Felker, spoke to The Cord about the lack of concern for the safety of sex workers in Waterloo Region.
Felker’s torso was recovered from a dumpster at 250 Frederick St on Jan. 26. Stephen Roy Johnson, 37, was charged with first-degree murder and indignity to a human body.
Kelley said she was familiar with Johnson. “I knew him,” she said. “He wasn’t ever violent towards me and he wasn’t a drug user. He was a bit of a drinker, but you can never really tell.”
Kelley says she informed police that she knew Johnson. They approached her soon after the discovery of Felker’s body.
Police could only confirm that Johnson knew Felker. “We’ve not commented on the nature of that association or that relationship,” said Olaf Heinzel, public affairs coordinator for the Waterloo Regional Police Service. “There’s nothing in the investigation that suggests we should make any remarks about that.” Police also declined to comment on Felker’s occupation.
Kelley and Felker had worked together in the sex trade. Kelley noted that Felker was simply the latest of her friends to disappear.
Kelley was also familiar with Tina Yule, a sex worker whose body was recovered in the Grand River in April 2008. Yule’s killer is still at large.
Michelle Fitzgerald, a friend of Felker’s and the organizer of Monday’s vigil, also remembers Yule. “People were just like ‘poor Tina’ for a couple of days and then it was shrugged off and forgotten.” Fitzgerald organized the vigil to ensure people would not forget her friend.
Sex workers are amongst the most vulnerable members of the Kitchener-Waterloo community. “All across Canada sex workers are murdered on a fairly regular basis,” said Sara Casselman, the public relations officer at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region and a member of the Sex Workers Action Network, a group dedicated to supporting individuals in the sex trade.
“A vast majority of [sex workers] have experienced violence,” she continued. “Certain perpetrators know sex workers have very few avenues and they take advantage of that.”
In the Missing Woman Commission of Inquiry released last December, inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal was highly critical of a B.C. government that left sex trade workers vulnerable to attacks. The tragedy of B.C. – which Oppal called one of “epic proportions” – is one that is found across Canada.
In Waterloo, agencies like the Sexual Assault Support Centre are trying to ensure that sex workers have more avenues of redress. Waterloo Regional Police have set up an anonymous tip line for sex workers to report violence and the Support Centre also has a 24-hour crisis and support line.
The impending Supreme Court of Canada ruling of the decriminalization of prostitution may also make it safer for sex workers to report violence against them.
While Kelley is skeptical that decriminalization will help her personally, she believes its overall impact will be positive. “It will be safer in general for all involved because girls won’t seem so unimportant about reporting bad johns,” she said.
For now, safety is something sex workers have to take care of themselves. “We just need to keep an eye on each other and be more aware when somebody hasn’t been seen in a while,” Kelley added.
For the 150 people gathered in front of Kitchener City Hall Monday night, however, it doesn’t matter what Felker was doing. They came together to remember her positive spirit, and a woman who was taken much too soon.
If you have experienced violence or abuse, contact the Sexual Abuse Support Centre at 519.741.8633 or the Guardian line at 519 650 8558
*Kelley declined to give us her last name
EDITOR’S NOTE: The fourth paragraph has been updated to more accurately reflect the story’s officially confirmed facts.