Human trafficking is taking place in our back yard

The image of a swarthy Svengali luring innocent young white women into slavery in a bordello of the Casaba has been a staple of international travel since before the age of Victoria, but for Anishnabe-kwe that fate is an all-too-real danger to be encountered in just about any urban centre in Canada.

That such a situation could exist even here on Manitoulin, in nearby Sudbury, in Sault Ste. Marie, and is not restricted to such exotic locales as Thunder Bay or Toronto will no doubt come as a surprise to too many of our readers. But the truth, unpalatable as it may be, is that human trafficking is taking place in all of our communities, right under our noses, and for far too many of the victims and their families, the systemic racism that exists in our society blinds us to their fate.

So abhorrent is the concept of human trafficking and the recruitment of young children into the sex trade that we seek to find excuses for our inaction on this file. We look to blame the victim, seeking to wash complicity from our hands through statistics that justify our inaction and wilful ignorance. This past weekend, Dr. Lavell-Harvard sought to tear some of the blinders from our eyes by turning statistics on their head at the first human trafficking conference held in Aundeck Omni Kaning. By a factor of many hundreds of percent the vast majority of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were not engaged in the sex trade, were not engaged in illegal commerce and were not the victims of their own families or partners.

We choose to believe otherwise because, at our core, we buy into the systemic racism that pervades our society. We need to strip the blinders of racism from our eyes and to begin to honestly tackle the damage that has been caused by the sins of our fathers and by through our own wilful ignorance.

Ms. Lavell-Harvard referenced the story of the hummingbird who sought to put out a forest fire by carrying a tiny amount of water in its beak to drop on the conflagration. Asked why she was engaged in such a futile task the hummingbird responded that she was doing the best that she could.

But put simply, when it comes to the issue of human trafficking and the sex trade, we are not even beginning to approach the meagre efforts of that hummingbird. We are simply turning a blind eye and hoping that it is someone else’s problem, someone else’s responsibility. It is not. We own it. It is ours and we need to face up to that fact and start doing something about it.

If we are shamed by the spectre of international agencies pointing fingers at us and shining a light on our failures, our response cannot be to claim that those agencies are flawed. The flaw lies within ourselves and the society we have built. It is long past time for Canadians, yes that includes us Manitoulin, to undertake some deeply thought out renovations to our society.

What can we do? How can our little hummingbird beaks make a difference?

We can stop legitimizing the racism by staying silent when a friend makes a racist joke. We can refuse to laugh and pass on the social media memes that dehumanize and reduce human beings to objects. We can start with all those little things in our lives that seem so harmless and “fun” that reflect negative stereotypes.

We can tell our children that they are beautiful and deserve to be treated with respect. That they should be proud of who they are and where they come from—that they are not objects to be bought and sold for sexual gratification. We can start so very much younger than we do now, because as Ms. Lavell-Harvard pointed out, children as young as eight are being victimized. We need to open up these difficult conversations and get past our own discomfort with the subject matter.

We can send an email to our MPP and MP, heck, why stop there? In this day of Internet connectivity, we can send our outrage to all of our political representatives with just a little bit of effort.

We can and must do better—we must each and every one of us strive to do the best that we can.