Southwestern Manitoba Grandmother’s Walk a call to action against sexual exploitation, trafficking

Community members called for action and support Thursday for those experiencing sexual exploitation and trafficking in southwestern Manitoba and across Canada.

More than three dozen people rallied Thursday for Brandon’s Grandmother’s Walk Protecting Sacred Lives organized by the Westman Team Against Sexual Exploitation at Princess Park in the city’s downtown.

“This isn’t just a big city problem. This is happening in every community and we need to rally together to protect these sacred lives,” said the team’s co-chair Lisa Noctor. Exploitation is defined as the exchange of sex or sexual acts for money, drugs, shelter, food or other basic human rights.

In Brandon youth in the community are the biggest demographic affected by sexual exploitation and Indigenous youth are over-represented, said co-chair Shannon Saltarelli.

One of the key factors in addressing sexual exploitation in the community is acknowledging “hidden homelessness,” Noctor said.

A woman hold a paper speaking to a crowd.
Westman Team Against Sexual Exploitation co-chairs Lisa Noctor, left, and Shannon Saltarelli speak. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“Within that hidden homelessness are young people who don’t have a safe space to go,” Noctor said. “They are young people who don’t have positive or healthy families or friends to turn to for somewhere to find shelter and to find caring.”

A Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation vulnerability index study first assessment of 291 adults experiencing homelessness in Brandon indicated 42.6 per cent were couch surfing, moving from one temporary housing arrangement to another. The assessment, which was conducted from August 2019 to September 2022, also showed 24.1 per cent of respondents were accessing available shelters.

Thirty-three per cent reported engaging in risky behaviours including sex in exchange for money, running drugs for someone, having unprotected sex with someone they don’t know, sharing a needle or doing something similar.

As a community it is imperative to create spaces for young people to seek safe shelter, Noctor said, while limiting their exposure to potential or identified predators. 

Saltarelli added caregivers need to understand that all children are at risk, even though some children may have more underlying vulnerabilities.

She said caregivers, teachers, parents and the community in general need to be open to having difficult conversations that bring awareness to young people about what exploitation looks like.

Signs a youth may be at risk include a child receiving unexplained gifts including cash or jewelry or talking about new relationships.

“Initially they’re treated very well to be brought into an exploitation ring and then things change very drastically for them,” Saltarelli said. Once part of a ring, a child can have their ID and other possessions taken away making them feel that they are tied into the relationship.

A group of people stand in a circle for an Indigenous prayer.
Jason Gobeil, left, leads a prayer. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

One of the tricky aspects of exploitation and trafficking rings in the community are young people are often afraid to talk about what they are experiencing, Noctor said. In other cases, they may not identify themselves as being exploited or trafficked because they feel that they are loved, cared for and safe.

“One of the most important messages for us to share today is that nobody wants to be exploited. That’s where the shame comes in,” Noctor said. 

When young people are judged and shamed for experiencing exploitation it creates further isolation and a difficult barrier to overcome when they seek help.

 “We can have honest conversations about safety … and healthy relationships,” Noctor said. “We can work towards giving young people opportunities to connect with community in a healthy way and in a good way.”

The RCMP has phone lines that accept reports of human trafficking for each province and in Winnipeg, human trafficking can be reported by calling Klinic Community Health‘s toll-free line at 1-844-333-2211.