10.25.134:45 AM ET

Canada's Missing Girls

Canada's sex trafficking rings prey on native girls—and one non-profit group is helping survivors of the trade speak out and fight back. My Susan McClelland.

On October 26 in Kansas City, the non-profit group Veronica’s Voice will be hosting a conference featuring the voices of sex trafficking survivors. Their call is to have more survivors engaged in combating the trade that sees more than a hundred thousand victims each year. In Manitoba, Canada, survivors have been at the table for nearly a decade now, helping implement some of the most progressive laws and programs.

A crescent moon rises over the dusty streets of North Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. Debbie, a lanky six-foot blonde, makes her way through some of the alleys behind the old historic houses that once belonged to the city’s first homesteaders. Skirting garbage dumpsters, she eventually emerges in a vacant parking lot behind a Laundromat, where many of the area’s youth hang out. Known as the Pink, this is where gang members and their girls meet to arrange parties and to sell drugs.

Most adults are not welcome in this underbelly. But Debbie is, for two reasons. One, she used to be one of the youth. Secondly, everyone knows she’s there to really help. Some of the youth, wearing ripped jeans and hoodies, give her high-fives. They huddle in close and whisper information to her. While they do so, Debbie hands out kits with hand sanitizer, condoms, power bars, emergency numbers to call for housing, addiction recovery and to escape abuse, and candy for when they’re coming off of their drugs. “I saw a kid, maybe 12, the other day,” one of the youth says. “She’s in the game and in bad shape.”

Despite this being one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Canada, there’s a code on the streets that Debbie, a formerly abused child, knows well. Kids don’t belong. Adult sex workers keep an eye out for them, partly for selfish reasons because the kids take away their businesses. But also because anyone on the street knows how tough the lifestyle is. There are the drugs, the abuse and the grim reality; their lives are in constant danger. The wooden electrical posts are littered with posters of missing girls and young women. “Everybody has a different story as to why they’re out here,” says Debbie, who is a street outreach worker for the non-profit organization Ndinawe. “But a few things are the same for everyone: it’s a miserable existence.”

Manitoba is leading the way not just in Canada, but worldwide, in trying to combat the sexual trafficking of children. It’s one of the first jurisdictions to refer to all child sex workers under the age of 18 as abused children in need of care. The province has enacted some of the most progressive laws to combat the sexual trafficking of minors and pumps about $10 million a year into front-line services, including foster homes, safe houses, educational facilities and work programs to help these abused children find new and healthier lives. Key to these changes were the voices of survivors, who have not just shared their experiences in the sex trade or ‘game’, but have come to the table alongside politicians, law enforcement, social workers and the medical profession as equal partners in developing strategies to stop human trafficking. “We know we have to work with the victims,” says Manitoba politician, Joy Smith. “We have to understand what human trafficking is. Victims know how predators work.”

Natasha Falle, who co-founded the first survivor led advocacy group, Sex Trafficking Survivors United along with Veronica’s Voice co-founder Kristy Childs, adds: “Our voices are so valuable. For instance, one great error in the public perception of human trafficking is that we are submissive victims, handcuffed to beds. The vast majority of children in the trade are kept there by invisible chains, and most of us become foul-mouthed and hard and don’t see ourselves as victims.”

Worldwide, at any given time, 140,000 victims are thought to be involved in human trafficking for the purposes of sex. The Salvation Army reports that in Canada thousands of people, including children, are trafficked each year. But all front-line experts caution that this figure is modest as most trafficked adults and children are hidden and unaccounted for. In Canada, native girls far outnumber any other population in the trade.



Back of head of woman standing looking at sea
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The changes in Manitoba started in 2002, in the wake of reports of a large number of missing aboriginal young women, many of who were eventually found murdered. They were all between the ages of 15 and 16 and controlled by a pimp, says Diane Redsky, director for the human trafficking task force for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. There was a growing acceptance that existing programs were not protecting those youth most in need. The province began to establish safe houses for exploited children, foot patrols—like what Debbie does—and some new foster care initiatives targeting those most at risk long before they even were trafficked. After all, most of the kids in the trade have a common profile, says Redsky: poor, abusive families, little education and drug and alcohol abuse. “We were charging 15 and 16 year old with juvenile prostitution,” says Redsky. “Most places still do. The offenders who were around them are committing the crime. These are not bad kids, having a bad moment. These are perpetrators preying on the most vulnerable of children.”

Further changes in Manitoba came after the 2005 suicide of 14-year-old Tracia Owen. Tracia hung herself in a garage, “because she was hopeless,” says Redsky. An inquest following her death revealed that starting when Tracia was two months old and for a total of 18 times before her death, she was taken into custody by social service agencies. As a pre-teen, Tracia became hooked on drugs and was trafficked into prostitution. The judge in the inquest concluded that the government waited for the family to sort out its own problems, rather than focusing on giving Tracia a solid foundation to succeed in life. “Somewhere, opportunity for the parents should have been replaced by opportunity for Tracia,” the judge concluded.

After the inquest, a task force was established that saw survivors’ input and expertise utilized in unprecedented ways. One such initiative that gained great support was the establishment of degree-granting program through the non profit group, Ndinawe which also provides short and long-term housing for trafficked children, a school, and outreach services. To date, 58 formerly trafficked men and women have graduated with diplomas in child and youth care from Ndinawe. Ten Ndinawe graduates have gone on to receive college and university degrees. And almost all of the graduates, which include four men, now work in various front-line child welfare jobs across the province, such as helping exploited children and youth find safe houses, return to school, develop life skills and access needed mental health services.

Falle, a survivor who also founded Sextrade101, a public awareness and educational non-profit group on human trafficking, says the Sex Trafficking Survivors Network was born in the wake of Robert Pickton’s 2007 conviction for the deaths of 26 women in British Columbia. Leading up to his arrest, there were reports of more than 70 missing women and girls. Not all, but a majority, were native Canadians and poor. “The families screamed out to the media and demanded action,” says Falle. “That was when the public really started to get that prostitutes were loved and had family. They were humanized. We all recognized that the way we were doing things was not working.”

Part of the humanization Falle speaks of is the recognition that at the root of the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal Canadians is their long-standing history of alienation and abuse. Laurie, a second-generation child prostitute, who now is also a front-line worker in Manitoba says: “There was a genocide against native people All of us are dealing with the trauma and pain that comes with that, making native women in particular very vulnerable to exploitation.”

Starting in the mid 1800s, Canada implemented the residential schools program, in which native children were taken from their families at a young age and raised by church officials. Abuse and disease ran rampant. In the 1960s, native children were also plucked from their families in a program called the ‘60s Scoop’ and raised by non-natives, often in rural settings where school was limited and they were put to work on farms as labor. The last residential school closed in 1998, and in 2008, the Canadian government issued a formal apology for the treatment. A report published by the University of Windsor concluded that aboriginal families today lack healthy child rearing skills due to these programs.

Laurie, who asked that her last name not be used, was a child of the 60s Scoop program. Her mother was in a residential school and both became prey to sexual human traffickers at the average age most enter the sex trade: 13. “I hated myself,” says Laurie. “As a child, I was called everything from Dirty Little Squaw to Savage. I came to believe this is exactly what I was, so I could be used and abused and felt that was what I deserved. My mother felt the same way until we began as adults to really explore the beauty of our culture.”

So serious has the issue of trafficked youth become that the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the tenth largest such funding organization for females in the world, is spearheading a national campaign to gather research on the full extent of the problem and examine laws that need to be created to better protect youth and prosecute offenders. They are committed to supporting needed front-line services and, of course, gathering the girl’s and women’s stories to help them lift the cloak of shame and help society understand and help in their reintegration. “There is a lot of healing that needs to be done,” says Debbie. “Some of the trade is even generational. I know girls whose moms and aunties were in the sex trade. It’s what they saw on a daily basis. Everybody has a different story. But the only way we are going to stop it, is by listening to these stories.”