Sarah York, a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, is researching the early days of the sex trade in Saskatchewan.

History of province's early sex trade uncovered

Student has found that Saskatoon was tolerant to sex trade at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1910, an all-male jury in Saskatoon caused an uproar when the jurors acquitted notorious brothel madam Babe Belanger of attempting to bribe a police officer.

"The verdict provoked a storm of responses from clergy, newspapers and residents demanding a no-tolerance approach to prostitution," University of Saskatchewan history student Sarah York said.

"However, the lenient ruling was not as astounding as it seems. After all, Belanger's business served the kinds of men who made up her jury."

With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, York is investigating the untold story of Saskatchewan's early sex trade for her master's thesis.

Belanger's case and other stories of sex workers reveal much about society's views toward prostitution and women's roles when the Prairies were being settled, but they are often lost to history.

A study abroad program to New York City as an undergraduate introduced York to urban history and the histories of the sex trade. The trip started her thinking about what gets remembered, what gets forgotten and who decides.

It has been nearly 30 years since the most recent research into prostitution on the Prairies was published. York's project will be the first study to look at urban centres from a feminist perspective.

"Sarah is taking a fresh look at a topic that has not been studied for the past generation," York's supervisor Bill Waiser said.

Research to date has focused primarily on rural women on the Prairies. York also sets herself apart by focusing on women in Saskatchewan's cities.

"Often people don't realize that the province's farming communities needed service centres and Saskatchewan's were some of the fastest-growing cities in the country at the turn of the 20th century," Waiser said.

With urban growth came associated social issues, including the sex trade.

When the Prairies were being settled, men drastically outnumbered women in urban spaces since most opportunities involved hard labour, such as homesteading and railroad construction.

As a result, cities catered to the desires of single men. The large population of bachelors allowed the sex trade to develop and flourish to varying degrees across the Prairies.

York has discovered that Saskatchewan cities took different approaches to the sex trade.

Newspapers took advantage of the public's conflicted fascination with the taboo world of the sex trade. To feed curiosity, Saskatoon Star articles about court appearances of accused sex workers provided detailed descriptions of what the women wore and how they behaved in the courtroom.

"Regardless of their Victorian ideals, the public was clearly interested in who these women were and what they looked like. The papers played up both the public panic over women with independent wealth and the romanticized myth of sex work."

To provide a more complete picture of the sex trade and the women involved in it than did contemporary newspapers, York relies on a variety of other sources including police reports and private correspondence.

"These women had trade skills and their communities depended on them. For example, when Nellie Webb was put on trial, her community in Edmonton was affected because she was the only midwife in town."

York hopes her research will contribute to an understanding that the sex trade was and is part of colonial history and culture.

Lisa Buchanan is a graduate student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.

This article first ran as part of the 2012 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Communications office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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