One century ago, Point Douglas sex-trade workers wore kimonos instead of Spandex, worked from the home and not on the streets, and paid off private investigators instead of pimps — and it was all (somewhat) legal.
But that's where the differences end and the ugly similarities begin.
Back then, like today, Point Douglas residents wanted them out. Then, like today, these sex-trade workers were often the city's most vulnerable. Some were immigrants, others were drug addicts, many were destitute.
Death of Elie Tasker
Authorities may have shut down the Point Douglas red light district, but they couldn't shut down the sex trade. Instead, madams relocated their brothels throughout the rest of the city, especially Winnipeg's west end, where the familiar cycle of prostituion, drugs and violence continued.
Whoever killed Elie Tasker wasn't after her diamond rings, but he was likely looking for sex.
So while Tasker's homicide is one of the oldest cold cases in the Winnipeg Police Service's files, it also reaffirms another grim historic reality: the sex trade then, just like today, was rife with violence. And the women are the ones who die.
It was Saturday, Oct. 4, 1947.
Elie Frances Tasker, 42, was already well-known to police. For years, her modest, clean home on Young Street was actually an after-hours gaming house, where clients could drink, gamble and pay for sexual services behind closed doors.
But sometime between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon, when she was found lying in the foyer, somebody killed her.
She had been stabbed over and over again: in her back, on her neck and head. Her purse was ransacked and her car was stolen.
But the person who killed her didn't bother with the three diamond rings she was wearing, with 17 stones in total.
That's why police suspected that robbery wasn't so much a motive as revenge. Anger, possibly, over services gone wrong.
For years, the unsolved homicide remained in the police service's cold files, since there was still a chance the killer could be alive today.
Today, 66 years later, that seems unlikely, but not impossible.
They were often beaten, sometimes murdered, either by drunken customers or angry ex-boyfriends.
In other words, Winnipeg's brief foray into legalizing the sex trade did nothing to stop the exploitation.
"It was intended to bring about the change of conditions," said John McRae, the city's chief of police at the time, "to remove the evil spread broadcast through the city into one area."
The year was 1909. To that point, this "evil" called prostitution infiltrated too many areas, to the frustration of the residents.
This was why McRae came up with the idea of "segregating" the industry — legalizing it in one specific neighborhood. In his mind, it was a best-case scenario for a social blight that would never go away.
"There is no city I know which is free from it," McRae explained. "It is like the poor. Evil is always with us."
Madams move in
That's why, with the blessing of the board of commissioners, McRae recruited longtime "madam" Minnie Woods. His message? Spread the word and let others in the business know that if they move to Point Douglas, authorities would look the other way.
So Woods spread the word, and she and other madams bought up property on two Point Douglas streets. Winnipeg's red light district was born.
By 1910, more than 50 brothels were running and close to 250 women were in the trade, making roughly $18 a week to sell their bodies.
But it was still a hard and ugly life. On any given day, you could be greeted by the women soliciting customers from their windows or front porches, wearing either gaudy bright kimonos or nothing at all.
At one point, authorities determined that almost 300 clients were accessing the brothels in less than three hours.
Alcohol was rampant, used to lure the clients and pay off police. Morphine was rampant, fed to the addicted sex-trade workers.
"Oh well, there is the usual sights of naked legs, you know, and drunken men," said one Point Douglas resident at the time.
Some of the women got regular health checkups. Others, however, spent a lot of time in hospital coping with venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancies and botched abortions.
Some were raped while on the job and rarely was anyone charged with the crime. Some were forced into the trade by destitute families or abusive husbands.
It all came to a head when Gissele Robert was murdered at the Point Douglas brothel she worked at.
She had spent a few late-night hours with a client named Fred. The next morning, her money was gone, he was gone and she was dead.
The police chief's plan to keep the industry under control was blowing up in his face. Winnipeg later became known as the "wickedest city" in Canada.
Soon after, the red light district was shut down, at least officially.
A Royal Commission determined that while there wasn't any evidence of police corruption per se, McRae's gamble on segregating the sex trade and "toleration" of its existence had compromised public peace and order.
But red light district or not, the sex trade continued on afterward — fueled, much like today, by poverty, exploitation and addiction.