UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Sex work and the social-spatial order of boomtown : Winnipeg, 1873-1912 Wilkinson, Amy Catherine


Life in late-nineteenth century Canada was characterized by dramatic social and economic change. Fears of American annexation, combined with growing interest in the agricultural potential of the Prairies, contributed to the colonization, settlement, and eventual urbanization and industrialization of the Canadian West. In 1871, the first numbered treaties were signed and the Dominion Lands Act was passed, signalling the resettlement of Indigenous communities onto isolated reserves in Manitoba and the rapid westward migration of European settlers, eager to capitalize on the Canadian government’s promises of free land and good jobs. Such rapid transformations were, of course, accompanied by what the governing middle class would perceive as social discord: the mobilization of the working class, the emergence of women in the public sphere, and Indigenous resistance. While many focused their efforts on the segregation, regulation, and reform of these diverse communities, others identified and exploited opportunities in Canada’s new urban contexts, thus shaping the social and geographic patterns of development therein. This study focuses on the relationship between sex work and urban development in the city of Winnipeg between 1873 and 1912. By examining a variety of sources, including the final report and minutes of evidence from the Royal Commission on Charges of Social Vice, police court record books, newspapers, and published first-hand accounts, this study argues that Winnipeg’s early sex economy and the spaces it occupied were actively produced and continually reshaped by the city’s sex workers, business interests, and civic elite. Each of these groups recognized that the tacit acceptance of certain types of sex work (and sex workers), combined with the continuous deployment of regulatory middle-class discourses, would play a significant role in the demographic and physical growth of the city, while generating incredible profits for all involved parties. It is thus my contention that Winnipeg’s socio-spatial development depended on this interplay of competing—even contradictory—social, economic, and political interests. Sex workers—and the other historical actors with whom they interacted—influenced the social and geographic patterns of urban development in Winnipeg, transforming it from a fur trade outpost to colonial metropolis over its first forty years.

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