Alaya McIvor is convinced the struggle is a matter of life and death. “I’ve experienced a lot of my sisters go missing or being found murdered ... who were exploited or trafficked,” she says, holding an eagle feather, a gift from an elder. “It goes hand in hand.”
Ms. McIvor, 32, is Ojibway, lives in Winnipeg and has grappled with a triple stigma as a transgender woman who is aboriginal and working the streets. She does not see herself as a victim, but as a survivor – of poverty, child abuse, sexual exploitation, trafficking in Manitoba and B.C., rapes, beatings and police brutality.
She was 12, and had been taken into care, when she was given two options: stay in her northern Manitoba community where she didn’t feel safe or relocate to Winnipeg. She chose the latter, and says she was put on a Greyhound, alone with a one-way ticket and no one waiting at the other end.
When she arrived, she soon fell into the wrong hands.
Over the years, she says, she has “lost count” of friends and relatives who have gone missing or been murdered. In 2013, she walked from Nova Scotia to B.C. to raise awareness of the issue – something she now does as an advocate with a strong sense of what is most urgently needed: Around-the-clock outreach services for those being exploited and trying to escape. Safe homes that are open 24 hours a day, and more transitional programs with detox centres, housing and counselling, to help women rebuild their lives.
“Housing is a big issue,” she says. “The majority of the girls, boys, men and women who are exploited don’t have proper rental history, and the landlords stereotype them and cast judgment upon them.”
She is not alone in her activism. Many survivors have dedicated their lives to fighting the problem and helping others recover, even as they continue to wrestle with the after-effects.
Perhaps as well as anyone, they understand why the U.S. State Department analysis last year deemed Ottawa’s funding for special services for trafficking victims “inadequate,” and called co-ordinated efforts “uneven across the provinces and territories.”
“They’re the PhDs in sexual exploitation – and they need to be listened to,” says Yvonne Boyer, who feels policy makers should make a greater effort to involve those with experience.
Now 39, Bridget Perrier is a social worker and “survivor champion.” She lives with three children in Toronto, but speaking out about the problem and her past has taken her across Canada as well as to Britain and the United States.
She wants to see more tuition support, so girls can go back to school, better housing options and commitments from employers who are willing to give survivors a fresh start. She’d also like to see Canada emulate a recent U.S. effort to establish a council made up of survivors to advise on government policy.
“I never want another little girl to endure what I endured,” she says.
Juanita Murphy, now 48, works with sexually victimized youth at CEASE in Edmonton.
“What kills me,” she says, “is what happened to me 20 years ago, being exploited, is still happening today. Kids are falling through the same cracks.
“I have girls phoning me saying, ‘I want to get off the streets, can you help me? My pimp won’t let me go. He’s been my pimp since I was 12 years old.’ ”
Ms. Murphy says indigenous communities need more resources – for prevention, counselling, peer support and youth awareness – and to put aside taboos and encourage more open discussion about sexual exploitation and trafficking. Young people, she says, need more male role models willing to fight violence against women.
And rather than taking kids away and putting them into foster care, she says, more work should be done to strengthen families.
Indigenous girls are targeted, she says, because “we are the ones who are most disadvantaged … who are forced to live in foster homes and group homes, or end up going to jail.”
Then she adds, nearly in tears, “it is residential school all over again.”
Published on February 10, 2016