The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Elegantly waving, practically royalty in her own town, Diamond Dolly was one of the many prominent sex workers in Calgary during the early 1900s.

Her carriage displayed diamonds and other flamboyant decorations as she paraded through town — drawn by a beautiful, black horse. She gestured grandly at her customers in the mornings.

The question was, “Whose horse was it?”

The stable keeper claimed it was his, but the police chief at the time was spotted trotting down main street on the illustrious steed.

During a raid on her brothel, 10 of the men arrested were part of the local police force.

Diamond Dolly’s story is part of the history that Kimberly Williams has been researching. Her most recent lecture in January commemorates this deviant and mysterious past that most Calgarians are unaware of.

Williams, associate professor at Mount Royal University of women’s and gender studies, has spent a large part of her career as a self-proclaimed feminist activist and social justice activist.

Her interest in Calgary’s historic sex industry began during Canada’s 150th celebrations. These celebrations made her realize the many aspects of Canada’s history that go unacknowledged.

“I’m attentive to where the women are in our history, and what does gender have to do with who gets remembered and who gets erased.”

After extensive research on these Canadian women, Williams created a walking tour during the to highlight some of the historic places that made a name for Calgary as the, “booze and brothels capital of Canada.”

The Chinook Country Historical Society invited Williams to present on the topic of Calgary’s sex industry at the Calgary Central Library because of these walking tours, as well as the extensive research she’s compiled for a book she’s currently writing about the Calgary Stampede.

That research led her to more information about the history of Calgary’s sex industry.

“I can’t write about what I’m writing about without knowing that context and that history,” she said.

She presented these discoveries at Booze, Broads and Brothels on the evening of Jan. 23.

SpeakerKimberly Williams speaking during the Booze, Broads and Brothels presentation at the Calgary Central Library Jan. 23. Photo by of Magdelaine Hughes.

During the presentation Williams pointed out that many aspects of the sex industry are illegal, though this did not have the outcome lawmakers may have hoped for.

“We have this economic problem where just because you make something illegal doesn’t mean that it’s going to solve things.”

Williams said that the sex industry cannot exist without a clientele. Railway workers, businessmen, politicians and the Northwest Mounted Police were all involved with sex workers.

“These folks that are the history of our city, were also clients of sex workers, yet sex workers get shamed for the work they do, and the clients get buildings named after them.”

Without these clients, the demand for the women involved in Calgary’s historic sex industry would not have existed.

Williams focused on finding out more about those women and spent the summer of 2016 reviewing records of police arrests of known sex workers in Calgary during the late 19th, early 20th century.

She said, “The only way you’d ever know if someone was a sex worker is if they got arrested.”

However these women were not who you’d imagine.

According to Williams, “they were kind of cool people, [and] really savvy business women,” such likeness as Diamond Dolly.

Elaine Baumann, attendee of the Booze, Broads & Brothels event, encountered some of those interesting business women.

Seated three rows from the stage, Baumann recalls her experience with sex industry workers in the 1960s. “I knew of two oil companies that their secretaries and office managers were the good girls in the day time and naughty girls at night.”

Williams hopes that discussions on taboo topics such as the sex industry will change the perceptions around sex workers and promote safety in lieu of eradicating the industry entirely.

Changing the way people understand sex workers is not an easy task.

Conversations about Williams’ work have tendencies to go two ways: either positively with interest about learning more or negatively with misconceptions that she is advocating for the sex industry.

A Facebook event page for the presentation Booze, Broads & Brothels became a hostile place for public opinion.

“These folks that are the history of our city, were also clients of sex workers, yet sex workers get shamed for the work they do, and the clients get buildings named after them.” - Kimberly Williams

Williams experienced personal attacks on the event page in messages on public posts. The event administrators determined the, “comments [had] moved past any sort of constructive criticism or productive discussion,” stating, “insults will not be tolerated.”

Williams recognizes the potential for negative reactions, as seen on the Facebook group, which occurred due to misconceptions about the presentation itself. She knows that some may disagree with what she shares: “Lots of folks, in fact, some of them may be there tonight.”

Attempting to combat some of those negative reactions, she addresses the common misconceptions about the sex industry in order to give the audience a deeper understanding of what the sex industry is and what it isn’t.

“I give myself away because I refer to sex workers rather than prostitutes, right? So when someone uses language like I do, the assumption often is, ‘Oh well, she thinks that the sex industry is great and she advocates trafficking’ and things like that, but actually sex trafficking has little to do with adult consensual sex industry. Like, they are two separate things.”

However, not everyone was opposed to William’s presentation.

Among those is Don Allen, who regularly attends events coordinated by the Calgary Historical Society.

Allen acknowledges that, “It’s a conversation that isn't talked about and Calgary is known to be quite conservative and that things are kept on the DL.”

However, he wishes there were more informative events like Booze, Broads and Brothels.

“They talk about Canada having a really boring history, and we have so much colour and there’s a lot of flavour and I just love getting that information and then sharing that, and who knows where the conversation goes from there.”

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