Writers and children?s advocates Melanie Mark and Cherry Kingsley have completed a remarkable study on commercial sexual exploitation of Canadian Aboriginal children and youth in 22 communities. Their report, Sacred Lives, documents five months of meetings that gave a voice to youth on all issues arising out of the sex trade, including abuse, exploitation, prevention, healing, exiting, public attitudes, crisis intervention, harm reduction, and especially youth participation.
The result, they hope, is a solid base of recommendations from Aboriginal youth that will spur governments, service providers and communities to action to stop the exploitation.
The document has been welcomed by the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Matthew Coon Come, and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, both of which are pressing for more money from governments to help young people trapped in the street life. FSIN also says if governments and the people of Saskatchewan cut the demand for young Aboriginal people to exploit, the First Nations will cut the supply.
The National Aboriginal Consultation Project, as the study was called, was put together in the aftermath of the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, which was held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1996, and its off-shoot summit on the same topic, Out From The Shadows, which was held in Victoria, B.C. in March 1998. That in turn spawned an Out From The Shadows program a year later, as an initiative of Save the Children Canada.
That organization decided to focus on Aboriginal youth. The program was founded upon the idea there should be full participation by the children and youths whose issues Out From The Shadows takes up.
Author Kingsley held the same view, which she expressed when she attended the conference in Stockholm. There she had noted that there were only 15 youth among 1,300 delegates. Only three of these young people had experience in the sex trade, or were ?experiential youth,? as she and Mark would later define them in Sacred Lives.
The report?s section entitled Background to the National Aboriginal Project makes it clear Kingsley and Mark were not usurping the voices of the youth involved in the National Aboriginal Consultation Project. They note that in attempts to solve children?s problems ?youth themselves are often stigmatized and given no power, no influence and no voice. Youth are not merely ?adults in training,?? they say, ?or the passive recipients of legislation: they have specific rights, as well as needs.?
Their study stressed the need for realistic participation by youth, meaning organizers and interviewers felt bound to create an atmosphere in which young people would feel free to express themselves and contribute to developing the policy and programs that bear on their issues.
In addition to the Save the Children organization, Ethel Blondin-Andrew, secretary of state for children and youth, and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development funded the project. Kingsley and Mark pay special tribute to the friendship centres that enabled focus groups to meet and to numerous agencies and community groups that not only helped bring Aboriginal youth and researchers together, but demonstrated their own commitment to ending commercial sexual exploitation in this group and helping them build positive lives.
Sacred Lives points out that in Canada, national surveys have identified anywhere from 14 to 65 per cent of youth in the sex trade are Aboriginal. Recently, that number has been estimated as high as 90 per cent in some cities.
In addition, it says that although research studies, policy and laws have been created around the topic of commercial sexual exploitation, most of this has not led to viable programs to defeat the problem. Another failing Mark and Kingsley identify is that the studies of commercial sexual exploitation leave out Aboriginal youth as an identifiable group.
?There has never been any work done specifically with Aboriginal children and youth in the sex trade,? Sacred Lives states. Their work begins to remedy that.
Several agencies working with current or former sex trade workers contacted by Windspeaker in Alberta and British Columbia were aware of Kingsley and Mark?s study and some said they had just received a copy of Sacred Lives but had not had a chance to read it. Many of them too were in fledgling programs to help get youth off the streets.
All identified the sex trade as the purview of the young and agreed with the report?s findings that no more than 20 per cent of prostitution takes place openly. Most indicated young people typically were drawn into it between the ages of 14 and 16, when they did not have adequate life experience to assess the risks until it was too late. While some said Aboriginal youth were greatly over-represented considering the percentage of Aboriginal people in the general population, they found it hard to believe their involvement could be anywhere near 90 per cent. Figures of 30 to 40 per cent were cited as more typical.
Kari Thomason, who works with under-18s at Metis Child and Family Services in Edmonton, was among the resource people consulted by Mark and Kingsley and whose agencies are part of PCHIP.
?We voiced our opinions, our concerns, the programs needed. We?re still actively involved in the PCHIP. We have two Aboriginal staff working at the safe house, and we also have an Aboriginal community follow-up worker.?
Thomason said the safe house is where ?the boys and girls are placed once they are picked up.? The follow-up worker tries to help them resolve problems around housing, addictions, and education.
?So our worker is in there working with them on a weekly basis, usually. Unlimited phone calls we get from them. They seek out support, and that?s what we?re giving them.?
Thomason said that although she has read reports that state Aboriginal involvement in rostitution is more than 50 per cent, ?that?s BS,? she said. ?It?s not over 50 per cent of Aboriginal kids being picked up. I?d say a good portion of it is, yes, but not 50 per cent.?