Grande Prairie 'john school' seeks to rehabilitate offenders

Men and women charged with buying sex in Grande Prairie can now opt for 'john school,' rather than moving through the criminal justice system and risking a conviction.

Dozens charged with solicitation now moving through new northern Alberta rehabilitation program

The 'john school' program launched in response to a 2017 Grande Prairie RCMP initiative that resulted in an unusually high number of charges relating to the sex trade. (CBC)

Men and women charged with buying sex in Grande Prairie can now opt for "john school," rather than moving through the criminal justice system and risking a conviction.

Law enforcement, health services and social outreach groups in the city are collaborating to run the Sex Trade Offender Program (STOP), to rehabilitate 'johns' who have been charged with solicitation offences.

Offenders are given the option of signing up for the program instead of going to court, though they don't get a second chance if they are arrested for soliciting again.

The one-day class, taught by a team of experts including police, therapists and lawyers, tries to enlighten participants about the sex trade.

"We want to educate individuals who are soliciting street workers so they're aware of the criminal implications," said Const. Christine Lemay, an instructor.

"More importantly, so that they're aware of the circumstances that lead people to enter the sex trade and the risks they face every day. We're hoping that this knowledge will prevent them from soliciting in the future."

Many people in the program are unaware buying sex is illegal, said one of the instructors, RCMP Const. Christine Lemay. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The program was launched to address an unusually high number of solicitation charges laid in Grande Prairie in November 2017, following a four-day operation which nabbed 35 people.

More than a dozen people registered for the first class on March 10. Evaluations written by participants at the end of the day showed many didn't realize buying sex is illegal, Lemay said.

"(Participants were) actually thanking us for the presentation and for educating them," Lemay said. "For me, that was huge."

The program offers a new way for police to help sex workers, she added.

People in the sex trade are becoming more difficult to reach as the sale of their services moves online and off the streets, Lemay said.

"Things have changed," she said. "A lot of it's gone indoors now so it's harder for us to work with these individuals."

STOP is modelled after a similar program in Edmonton, run by the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE). 

The goal of educating johns is to drive down demand for the sex trade, said Jacquie Aitken, executive director at the Pace Community Support, Sexual Assault and Trauma Centre in Grande Prairie.

"It is about changing attitudes," Aitken said. "We have to look at the attitudes of the people who are purchasing and their understanding of what purchasing sex means."

Aitken teaches a segment of the STOP class along with a Pace centre therapist. They focus on how trafficking affects the women, girls and boys who are sold for sex in Grande Prairie.

Many of her clients at the Pace centre say they moved into the sex trade as a result of childhood trauma that made them more vulnerable to exploitation, Aitken said.

"Vulnerable women, children, boys and girls get hurt," she said. "Individuals that have some empathy and understanding, they will make an effort to stop (soliciting)."

Not every STOP participant will change his or her behaviour following the class, Aitken said, but preventing even a handful of people from re-offending will help vulnerable people entrapped by sex work.

Reality versus stereotypes

STOP instructors also include Alberta Health Services staff, members of the local HIV North outreach group, as well as Grande Prairie chief Crown prosecutor Steven Hinkley.

Hinkley, who helped found the program, is active in educating his community about how sexual offences play out in the courtroom.

He volunteers for STOP as well as another local initiative that offers workshops on navigating the criminal justice system to agencies that work closely with sexual assault victims.

STOP is intended to undermine the sex trade industry in Grande Prairie by targeting and discouraging the buyers, he said.

"I bring home to them what the reality is, versus any stereotypes," Hinkley said. "It's amazing some of the misconceptions people bring in.

"People have a belief that the sex trade is not exploitative, that it's glamorized, that the people are in it purely for the profit ... the reality on the ground is staggeringly different."

Hinkley said he also focuses on the potential consequences of a solicitation charge, such as the public court process and a criminal record.

Grande Prairie chief Crown prosecutor Steven Hinkley helped found the program and teaches part of the one-day class. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

STOP will continue for as long as it is needed in Grande Prairie, Hinkley said. He hopes it brings a greater awareness of the sex trade and its ramifications to the people who drive demand for prostitution in the city.

The second Grande Prairie STOP class is planned for June 9, with about 10 people signed up as of May 15.

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.