Debts / Drugs / Delinquency: Philanthropy and prostitution in Montreal,1918-1925

An Exhibition

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In early 1918, representatives of Montreal’s leading philanthropic, religious, medical and educational institutions joined together to form the Committee of Sixteen, a philanthropic and public advocacy organization charged with petitioning for the suppression of prostitution. The committee was comprised of members of Montreal’s Catholic, Protestant and Jewish committees, doctors and nurses from Montreal’s leading Hospitals and medical professional organizations, professors from McGill University and the President of the Local Council of Women. The diverse composition of this committee reflected its initial program of reform, which focused on improving the social, religious and physical health of local Montreal prostitutes and, by extension, the state of the entire city.

Montreal has had a long history of philanthropic initiatives to suppress commercialized sex. In the nineteenth century, John Redpath led an effort to settle Montreal prostitutes personal debt, thereby, it was believed, liberating them from their pimps. Redpath sought to place these newly liberated women in convents. But, the Committee of Sixteen purposefully did not model itself on these earlier efforts, which they deemed failures as evidenced by the continued presence of prostitution in Montreal. Rather, the committee modelled itself on European and North American philanthropic organizations that had formed before the First World War as part of the global effort to combat 'white slavery.'' The Committee of Sixteen drew most of its inspiration for its work from the efforts spearheaded by John D Rockefeller, who had both funded international studies of the ‘white slave’ trade and local US efforts to suppress prostitution.

The Committee’s early work focused on drawing attention to the 'problem' of prostitution in Montreal and publicizing the purportedly successful initiatives of other similar organizations. In 1918, the committee published its Preliminary Report on the sex trade in Montreal. Over several months, committee members had observed the trade in an area which they identified as the centre of prostitution in Montreal. This area was bounded in the West by St Laurent Street, in the East by St Denis, in the North by Ontario and in the South by Craig Streets. Committee members spent days recording the comings and goings of a number of residences that they identified as 'disorderly houses’ and collecting representative biographies of both current and former prostitutes.

Drawing on their own research and the work of other philanthropic organizations, committee members concluded that prostitution in Montreal was itself a form of slavery. To be sure, committee members believed that prostitutes elected to join the trade, either as the result of desiring easy money or of following a life of general delinquency. But, once lured into this life of vice, prostitutes could not elect to leave their profession. Committee members believed that the sex trade was controlled by pimps and madams who ensured that their prostitutes were always in financial debt and therefore always obligated to continue working in their service. As a result, committee members recommended a two pronged strategy focusing on prosecuting pimps and madams and on reforming freed prostitutes.

The committee met with some early political success leading to an increase in the number of raids on 'disorderly houses.' Local politicians committed themselves to designing new policing strategies targeting the business practices of pimps and madams, including requiring the telephone company to cut its service to known 'disorderly houses.' The committee also supported the efforts of reformatories for former prostitutes, including the Montreal Mission for Friendless Girls established by Maimie Pinter.

But, the committee soon moved away from supporting efforts to liberate prostitutes from their debt bondage and began to focus exclusively on the moral and physical health of prostitutes. In 1920, committee members financially supported McGill University's Department of Social Work’s study of the mental capacities of local prostitutes. With the financial support of the Local Council of Women, Professor Carrie Derick sought to link prostitution to mental retardation in an effort to understand the choice to become a prostitute. In 1922, in an effort to increase the waning public interest in their efforts, the committee began to publicly link prostitution to drug addiction. In the wake of the publication of Black Candle, by Justice Murphy, A K Haywood, the Chief Doctor of the Montreal General Hospital and a founding member of the committee, presented the committee’s new strategy in a speech to the Canadian Club. While this new effort to link prostitution to drug addiction initially succeeded in raising interest in efforts to combat prostitution, as public interest in combating drug abuse waned over the next two years, so did interest in suppressing prostitution. In 1926, the Committee of Sixteen disbanded having failed in their efforts to end the sale of sex in Montreal.