Trek from mean streets to masters

August 2, 1996

Almost ten years after leaving the streets of Regina, Canada, where she worked as a prostitute, Sharon Acoose left the city's university with a masters degree. Under her belt was a year-long research project on her former profession, writes Philip Fine in Montreal.

Entitled "Prostitution in Regina: It is a lonely world", the 76-page report documents the conditions facing streetworkers, whose stories mirror her own. During the 18 years when she was selling her body and abusing drugs and alcohol, nobody could have convinced Ms Acoose, now 43, that she needed to leave the streets. But the Streetworkers Advocacy Project (Swap), a local drop-in centre, where she later volunteered, had the right formula.

When the centre was founded, local prostitutes were asked what they needed to improve their lives. The answer was simple: a support system, somewhere to talk and a place where they could be seen as people. They said that if the founders were simply going to try to tell them to quit working the streets, they would be told firmly where to take that advice.

Today, almost every major Canadian city has organisations similar to Swap. The Regina centre has recently moved from a dingy downtown storefront to a more comfortable house with many prostitutes coming in and out regularly - some using it as a tool to help them leave the streets.

When Ms Acoose, widowed mother of three and an aboriginal member of the Saulteaux people, left those streets and sobered up at 34, she took up studies at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, a native-run school affiliated with the University of Regina. After volunteering on a convocation committee, she found herself in awe of the graduates at the distinctive ceremony. As some of her aboriginal traditions were played out, the sound of drumming filled the hall and the college president addressed graduates in full chief's bonnet, she also saw her future.

She continued her studies and accepted her bachelors degree at one of those same convocation ceremonies. She admits that when she embarked on graduate studies, she did not know what topic to approach. "So I said why not write about something I know. I'll leave the stuff I don't know for the PhDs."

Her adviser appreciated her initiative. He says he also appreciates his university's network of colleges that open up studies to people from outlying regions and communities. "It's not often we get someone who has been through the streets and been through the life," said Doug Durst, director of the school of social work.

"I carry my past close to me," said Ms Acoose on the phone from her home in Regina, from where she will be moving and taking a job on the White Bear First Nations Reserve, southeastern Saskatchewan,as a social worker working with children and young people. A PhD is probably in her future but for now she would like to get on with her job and have her story told.

Feeling like an impostor when she walked the halls of the university, the academic life was a challenge. "I asked myself 'Who am I trying to kid?'" Having walked some mean streets as a prostitute, she said she was more intimidated when she had to formally defend her research project.

Ms Acoose says that she has been nurtured by her studies, her friends and the work she has been doing. She says she can not forget where she came from.

There are more Sharons out there, she says, who need to know they can go beyond being a prostitute - a word she wishes did not still sound so dirty.

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