It’s an understatement to say that from the day she was born Jill Wilson’s life has been extremely tough. Her mother, who had her at age 20, used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of family sexual abuse and sought protection from gang-affiliated men, who continued the cycle of violence. Abuse and neglect defined Wilson’s childhood. By the time she was 13, she had lived in no fewer than 23 foster homes. In one, her foster mother forced her to eat her own vomit; in another she was sexually abused. She almost never saw her two sisters, who had been sent to live in other foster homes.
At 13, determined to be independent, she ran away. She met some girls who were flush with cash from having sex for money and living in hotels. She joined them and before long, her life became intertwined with gangs and violence, too. Soon she was expected to pay for “protection” with the money she earned from selling sex. Wilson got pregnant once, again, then twice more. In a desperate effort to feed her four children, she sold drugs on two occasions. The second time was to an undercover cop. Any hope she had of starting over evaporated — she now had a criminal record.
It felt like her lot in life was set — but Wilson’s history as a survivor of sexual exploitation would turn out to be the key to rebuilding her life. In June, the 38-year-old stood at the front of a gymnasium decorated with black, red, yellow and white balloons, beaming in her cap and gown as a newly minted graduate of the Ndinawe child- and youth- care certificate program, accredited by Red River College in Winnipeg.
“I had more healing in the Ndinawe program than I ever had with whatever therapists Child and Family Services (CFS) had me see,” Wilson says. “I never realized I was failed by so many people.”
The social work program is different in one key way: “lived history” is a prerequisite for admission. The students get an educational foundation in year one, along with life skills and personal healing work. They can then further their education at the college, and potentially at university.
“Our graduates have taken their own personal histories and found their own road to transformation,” program coordinator Susan Berthiaume said at the ceremony. As each woman walked up to claim her diploma, Berthiaume shared a personal detail about her. When Wilson came up, Berthiaume talked about how effective and empathetic she was in her work with children and youth, and that, one day, she’d be “all of our bosses.”
Survivor-led care is an emerging idea among organizations working on the front lines of sexual exploitation, especially when it comes to trafficking. In the same way that #MeToo has showed that hearing women’s stories is integral to challenging and changing traditional power structures, more people are acknowledging that awareness around the experience of exploitation can benefit the survivors and others who have yet to come forward. Exploitation is shockingly common in Canada — 71 percent of trafficking happens domestically, and while it can reach across class, race and geographic boundaries, it’s most likely to affect marginalized people.
“When people have constrained choices in life, it is far easier for others to coerce them into dangerous situations and to exploit them,” says Karen Campbell, program manager of community initiatives at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which funds programs to prevent and respond to sexual violence. “Listening to the people who are affected is the first step to figuring out what a strong and good intervention looks like.”
In Canadian law, sexual exploitation is specific to minors — a charge laid against someone who is in a position of trust and uses that position to benefit sexually. But women’s organizations see exploitation as taking many forms. If a young mother has no other way to feed her family than to sell sex, that qualifies as exploitation. If a homeless person can only find a place to stay by using sex as currency, that’s sexual exploitation, too, as is forcing someone to have sex for money. The fastest growing form of exploitation in Canada is human trafficking, which is essentially manipulating and controlling someone into having sex for cash, none of which that person gets to keep.
A report published in June by Statistics Canada found the crime to be at its highest incidence rate ever in Canada, with one in 100,000 people being trafficked (it also said the rate is likely much higher since sexual violence on the whole is an under-reported crime). It disproportionately affects women (who make up 95 percent of victims), and particularly young women (70 percent of victims were under age 25). Indigenous women are often targets of sex traffickers. Preying on these women is just another form of “colonial-imposed oppression,” says Ndinawe-Red River College course instructor Cathy Denby. “You can’t look at [the sexual exploitation of Indigenous people] without looking at colonization, residential schools and the historical context — the sex trade goes back to the frigging fur trade.”
Still, many Canadians have the misperception that it’s not a domestic issue, says Karly Church, who was a community outreach worker at East Metro Youth Services, which offers a peer mentorship program for young people aged 12 to 29 who have been trafficked.
Kaitlin Bick, a mentor at East Metro, agrees. “It can really happen to anybody. I grew up very fortunate and had a very loving family. I had a lot of vulnerabilities, which made me more susceptible, but still — it’s not just a certain type of person [who is trafficked].”
Specific legislation pertaining to this crime was added to the criminal code in 2016, but there is still a huge gap in public awareness, Church says. “I was being trafficked and I had no idea that I was being trafficked,” she says. “I thought human trafficking meant you had to be moved from one place to another, I thought I had to be kidnapped, I thought I had to be tied to a bed or locked in a room.”
Church — who was in her early 20s at the time, living on the street and addicted to crack and heroin — ended up being trafficked by first simply responding to what she saw at the time as an act of kindness. A group of men she met in a drug den, friends of a girl she had met in a treatment program, offered her a place to stay. “They offered me free drugs, they offered me food. I thought I had hit the jackpot.”
While each incident is unique, traffickers tend to follow a model of entrapment. The first stage — also called luring — is when a trafficker seeks out your vulnerabilities by showing a deep interest in you, asking all kinds of personal questions to try to show they care. Then comes the “grooming and gaming” stage. Church felt pampered; she was meeting all kinds of new people and being taken out to get her hair and nails done. “I had had so many bad relationships, and I had always been trying to find money to eat, to get drugs,” she said. “He’d give them to me and say ‘Don’t worry about it,’ [and place a] very soft hand on my knee. It makes you feel so special.”
Once that bond was made, her trafficker moved on to the coercion and manipulation stage. “This is when the red flags are raised — they show you all that love and attention, and then they pull it all away,” Church says. When this happened to her, she would do anything to try to get back in her trafficker’s good books. And then came the requests: Sleep with some of my friends. Have sex for cash, then give the money to me. “It’s a way of desensitizing you,” Church says. The last stage is the most overt form of exploitation — it’s established that the woman being trafficked owes that trafficker a debt, and so she does what the trafficker says. If she resists, explains Church, the trafficker often uses the vulnerabilities exposed in the luring stage as tools, sometimes even threatening to out the person being trafficked as a sex worker to friends and family.
“A lot of these [perpetrators] are young, vulnerable men who are made to feel like they have no other option,” Church says. (Statistics Canada reports that 66 percent of people accused of trafficking between 2009 and 2016 were men aged 18 to 34.) “If you get caught with drugs or you get caught with guns, there’s the physical evidence that will be presented in court,” she says. “If you get caught with a girl, [you say] ‘This is my girlfriend, this is my sister, this is my friend.’” A trafficker could be your neighbour, a classmate a friend. Most women are trafficked by men they have been made to believe are their boyfriends, also known as the “Romeo pimp,” says Church.
Church was trafficked for two weeks, but “I would’ve stayed forever,” she says. She got out when a police officer made a fake appointment with her, posing as a john. “He talked to me like I was a human being.” The officer and his partner arrested Church’s pimps, who were camped out in another hotel room, and she later testified against them. “If it hadn’t happened that way, I wouldn’t have left — I’d still be there or I’d be dead.”
Bick and her coworkers at East Metro give presentations to police, schools, public health agencies — anyone who will have them. “At every prevention workshop we do, we have at least one person come up to us after say ‘I think this is happening to my friend or I think this is happening to me,’” says former program coordinator and architect Carly Kalish, adding they have clients on their caseloads — young women who have been trafficked — who are as young as 12.
A huge component of the work at East Metro Youth Services involves helping other survivors of human trafficking one-on-one. When Kalish started at East Metro five years ago, she saw clients who identified as survivors of human trafficking and wanted to find out what sort of programs they would most benefit from. She asked what they’d look for in a program tailor-made for them. They told her they wanted the root causes of trauma addressed — things that might have happened in their lives before the trafficking. “And they said, ‘You need people on your staff team who’ve been through this, so we know we’re not alone.’ ” The peers they hired had to undergo rigorous training to learn about setting boundaries, and about how to protect themselves from being triggered by what their clients were going through.
Recently, Bick had a first meeting with a client who was curious to know more about her before she’d divulge details about herself. “She said ‘So you’re a survivor, too?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. She didn’t feel alone and felt like she could talk to me. When I got hired, my biggest motivation was that if I can help at least one person feel just a little bit better, it means what I went through wasn’t for nothing.”
The Ndinawe program started in much the same way: Susan Berthiaume began asking her clients, many of whom were Indigenous, what was missing from their experience as a child in the system. “The thing that rose to the top again and again was [the difference it would’ve made] to have at least one worker in the system that knew what it felt like to be them.”
And this holistic approach is effective. Thema Bryant-Davis, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., who researches the impact of peer-and-survivor informed programs for people who have been sexually exploited, has found that “wrap-around services” that help survivors in many aspects of their lives are the most effective path to recovery. Victim experiences are being reframed as an expertise, which she says is “being more acknowledged and respected.”
In a room reserved for graduates to prepare ahead of the ceremony in Winnipeg, Berthiaume gets emotional as she affixes Ruth Dixon’s mortarboard to her head. Berthiaume and Denby handed out their 99th diploma that day, proud that the certificate program folds in elements of healing and cultural re-connection — something many of their clients had lost touch with. On average, about 80 percent of students in the program are Indigenous and 80 percent are women, usually single mothers or “heads of household” with children, Denby says. (During the ceremony, more than one graduate crossed the floor to hoots of “Good job, Mommy!”)
Dixon is the program’s first residential school survivor to graduate. She joined the program hoping to learn more about how to help her own grown children, who struggle with addiction. She also wanted to set an example that it’s worth learning new skills on your own terms, no matter what your stage in life. What she didn’t expect was that she’d have her own experience of healing.
She’d been working on her trauma through traditional healing and talking circles, but it all came out one day during the Ndinawe program, when the group was talking about a book that reminded her of her own experiences. “I just released everything,” she says. “It just kind of exploded and released that pressure.”
Jill Wilson’s heritage is Métis, but she had never been to ceremony or connected with her heritage at all. As part of the program, she met with an elder. “I went in there feeling sad and didn’t know why,” she says. The elder could tell, and said he could feel she was holding a lot in. “Then he says to me “You’re not five years old anymore, he can’t molest you.” That’s how old I was the first time I was molested. I bawled my face off,” she says.
Going through that healing first helped her connect with the other women in the program, often via sharing circles, which would include a smudging ceremony, an Indigenous ritual to help purify the space, whenever the subject matter got heavy. Then came a focus on the academic work, which prepared Wilson for the work placement.
“When you talk about lived experience, for our students, their past has been a barrier,” says instructor Ginelle Giacomin. “But now we’re saying all these barriers are going to make you better out in the field.”
Early on in that placement, one of the boys Wilson worked with in the group home would routinely call her a “f—ing bitch.” She instantly identified that as his way of protecting himself. Remembering what it was like to not have a parent who cared enough to help her with her school work, she was patient, and worked with him — even putting in extra hours. He started to ask when her next shift would be.
“It helps you have more confidence, knowing that everything you went through is going to mean something,” she says. “All that bad is going to mean something.”
The staff at Ndinawe told Wilson this placement is “only a stepping stone,” that she’s on to bigger and better things. For the first time in her life, Wilson believes it.