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A Challenge to Canadian Journalism: Behind Every Human Trafficking Story is a Human Story

A Challenge to Canadian Journalism: Behind Every Human Trafficking Story is a Human Story

Written by
Cora-Lee McGuire-Cyrette
on
February 22nd, 2019
A Challenge to Canadian Journalism: Behind Every Human Trafficking Story is a Human Story

Photo: Andrew Neel

Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA) is pleased that February 22 has been named Human Trafficking Awareness Day for the province of Ontario because it is so important to shed light on an issue that for too long has been ignored and unrecognized.

Stories of Indigenous women’s strength, leadership, and resilience are almost invisible in Canada’s public discourse, but the media have an opportunity to change public perception. Indigenous women are targeted, not vulnerable.

The scourge of human trafficking and the toll it has taken on Indigenous women and girls is as local a story as it is a national disgrace. There is no First Nation community or urban Aboriginal community that has been untouched by the violence we see as a direct result of colonization policies such as the Indian Act and residential schools, to name a few.

When stories of Indigenous human trafficking that reach into the very heart of Indigenous communities and families aren’t being appropriately reported by local and national media, continued violence and lawlessness plant themselves firmly in the fabric of daily life. A lack of wider media coverage on the systemic challenges facing Indigenous women and girls undervalues the pervasiveness of human trafficking and inevitably undermines preventative and protective work in this area.

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The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) is a not-for-profit organization that empowers and supports Aboriginal women and their families in the province of Ontario. As an Indigenous women’s organization, ONWA doesn’t get to pick and choose what issues to work on. When Indigenous women tell ONWA they need to address human trafficking, ONWA listens and acts to address human trafficking.

Ontario has been identified as one of the major hubs of human trafficking in Canada. Indigenous women and girls in Ontario are overrepresented in human trafficking and sexual exploitation because they are specifically targeted—targeted because they are women and because they are Indigenous. In the absence of interconnection and the messaging of “othering Indigenous women,” a national community has been created that lacks responsibility. It’s convenient to say it’s their own fault. Poverty, isolation, and violence have produced a situation that should be highlighted in our media and addressed by our leaders. However, the deeper, structural challenges facing Indigenous women and girls have yet to be effectively communicated to Canadians. In the absence of meaningful action to address these challenges, their lives continue to be exploited.

Connections have also been made between the overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls in human trafficking and sexual exploitation and the national crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Indeed, it has been identified that chronic missing persons is a sign of potential trafficking.

The scourge of human trafficking and the toll it has taken on Indigenous women and girls is as local a story as it is a national disgrace.

In order to address the complex issue of human trafficking, ONWA advocates for a collaborative approach where all sectors work together to create safety in Indigenous communities, regardless of the location or jurisdiction. ONWA’s programs and services take a trauma-informed approach that centres Indigenous women’s safety as a priority.

One example of this work is the Aakode’ewin program: a frontline, survivor-led service that ensures survivor voices are paramount in the design and delivery of community support. The aim of this program is to ensure the immediate safety of Indigenous women and girls who work in the sex trade or are experiencing human trafficking. Owing to where the knowledge and expertise on these issues exists, ONWA engaged directly with survivors to develop this program.

A crucial aspect of ONWA’s work in addressing human trafficking is listening to survivors. Indigenous women have told ONWA that colonization has silenced them. In this regard, Canadian media and journalists should take greater care in framing the context of the suffering caused by human trafficking, particularly for a Canadian audience that is numb to this ongoing tragedy.

ONWA is at the forefront of raising awareness about human trafficking in Ontario while shedding light on how this issue impacts Indigenous women, girls, and their families and communities. This work involves supporting survivors of human trafficking on their healing journeys and involving them in the planning of support services for women who have been trafficked. But ONWA’s work alone is not enough. When it comes to educating the public, it is vital that Canadian media and public service journalism bring the issue of human trafficking into the national discourse, along with its systemic causes.

Canadian media and journalists should take greater care in framing the context of the suffering caused by human trafficking, particularly for a Canadian audience that is numb to this ongoing tragedy.

At a societal level, in order to address human trafficking, intersectional issues such as poverty, homelessness, and education must also be addressed, as Indigenous women might compromise their safety in order to fulfill their basic needs. Restoring Indigenous women as leaders in their families, communities, and nations provides the opportunity to change these issues collectively.

Colonization destabilized and destroyed foundational elements of Indigenous society and community on the road to building prosperity. This prosperity remains elusive to most Indigenous people, whose experience has far too often been one of poverty and violence—something that continues to plague their women, girls, and communities. In order to end the cycle of human trafficking, a common humanity needs to replace the walls of indifference between colonial systems such as social services, child welfare, and education systems.

There is much work to be done in building equitable respect for Indigenous women and girls. Ensuring their safety from the clutches of human trafficking across the street or across town, in the cities and remote communities, is a national priority that goes unheeded. And it is a national priority because it affects Indigenous women and girls in communities throughout Canada.

Stories of Indigenous women’s strength, leadership, and resilience are almost invisible in the media. It is the collective responsibility of journalists to take the opportunity on Human Trafficking Awareness Day to change misguided public perceptions, not reinforce them. Behind every human trafficking story is a human story. The story of someone’s mother, sister, daughter who is fighting against overwhelming odds to lead the safe prosperous life that each and every one of them deserves.

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