Expanding Horizons: Rethinking Access to Justice in Canada
Ms. Cherry Kingsley from Save the Children-Canada wrote the following letter. Due to prior commitments, Ms. Kingsley was unable to attend the Symposium. She therefore requested that her letter be included in the final Symposium report as a way of providing voice to sexually exploited children and youth in Canada.
Dear Mr. Rosenberg:
I am writing this letter as I am unable to attend the “Rethinking Access to Justice” forum, being hosted on March 31st, 2000.
I am deeply disappointed that I cannot attend because “access to justice” is an issue facing commercially sexually exploited children and youth in Canada daily. I am currently touring across Canada consulting with sexually exploited Aboriginal youth in rural, on-reserve and urban communities, and unfortunately March 31st is the date of the talking circle that I am facilitating in Toronto. Within the transcripts of the talking circles are hundreds of young people’ stories reflecting the experiences of hundreds more. Because I am not able to share all of their stories in this letter, please contact me for transcripts.
I would like to reflect on what the youth have been telling me about their needs, with the hope that the information will be helpful to your discussions. I hope this information can be shared with the other participants and considered in your outcomes. I would feel badly if the only reason their voices went unheard was that I wasn’t able to attend.
I want to tell you a little about myself first. I am from the Sewepmec Nation in central British Columbia. I am currently employed by Save the Children-Canada as the manager for Out From the Shadows and Into the Light, a national project to address the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth in Canada. This issue is of utmost importance to me, as I was involved for eight years in the sex trade in Canada.
I became involved in the sex trade at the age of 14. I grew up in a very abusive home with my mother and stepfather. Everyday there was alcoholism, neglect, violence and sexual abuse. The first time I ran away I was five years old, hiding in the backyard because I didn’t want to go home. There were many, many times the police were at our house because of our parents fighting. They would ask my parents to quiet down because they were disturbing the peace, look at my sister and I, and leave. Once, in the middle of the night I asked a neighbour for help, only to be sent back home. I even asked a teacher once for help. She phoned by mother and when I got home I was beaten. I never again asked for help from a stranger.
When I was ten, I was put into state care in Calgary. My sister and I were immediately separated, and what followed was a series of 20 placements. I lived in foster homes, receiving homes, assessment homes, shelters and secure care. While moving around was painful, the shame and stigma of being a “welfare kid” felt worse. It was clearly understood and articulated that people in the community didn’t always like group homes or foster homes in their neighbourhoods, and many of them didn’t want us to associate with their children. I never felt that I could talk about my abuse, loneliness or feelings with anyone. The only friends I had were an older couple.
On reflection, there was nothing really special that they did to entice me, no promises of money, glamour or parties. Instead, they just used to hang out with me, and they would listen to me. Sometimes we would go for coffee or a movie, and when I didn’t want to go home (or wherever I was living), they would let me stay with them. When I was fourteen, they asked me if I wanted to go to Vancouver with them. They said they would take care of me, that I could go to school where no one would know me and know that I was abused or in care. Of course I went with them. All I ever wanted was to just leave all of that behind.
The night we arrived in Vancouver they told me they only had money for one night at a hotel and that I would have to go and “work”. I didn’t really know what they meant other than what I had seen on television. I didn’t understand what I was really going to have to do. “Working,” meant standing on a street corner, sometimes eighteen hours a day, sometimes more. Sometimes there was eight clients a day, ten clients, sometimes more. I wasn’t allowed to keep my money, and often didn’t even have enough change for coffee. I was beaten almost every day, both by my pimp and by my clients as well. When I was standing on the street corner, people walking or driving by me would yell, call me names and throw things at me. Police harassment was frequent. I was afraid to ask for help. Because I had run away I thought that I would be the one in trouble. By fifteen, I was working for a bike gang and had a cocaine and heroin addiction. I stayed entrenched in this life until I was twenty-two.
When I began to heal, I was able to change my life. Healing consisted of many things. Having somewhere to go, finding my voice, and connecting with my First Nations culture. All were, and are, of fundamental importance not only in surviving, but also in truly beginning to heal. For me personally, healing means living in the same world that has abused, neglected, exploited and abandoned me while something in me changes. Through the invitation of community and state services, I am given the opportunity, resources and support not just to survive, but thrive. I am allowed to shine.
Maybe that is justice.
Maybe justice isn’t always pointing fingers, making somebody “pay”, punitive, or a form of vengeance. Although when you read the papers or watch t.v. you begin to believe that’s what justice is. Maybe justice is being allowed to survive and thrive. Being allowed to give voice to who or what is hurting you. Young people told me when I asked them to define abuse,
“when somebody hurts you, not to teach you right from wrong or to teach you anything, but because they want to hurt you, whether it is mental, physical or sexual.” I had never seen abuse defined that way before. Another youth said that abuse is any thing that hurts so much it limits you in the world, physically, mentally, emotionally or sexually.
If we are struggling to make justice accessible, we have to agree about what justice is. We have to recognise some of the fundamental injustice in our country, and in our communities. Young people don’t want justice to mean pain, punishment, vengeance, retribution,
“making somebody suffer or pay”, finger-pointing, shaming or
“locking them up and throwing away the key”. Most young people that I talk to want food and shelter, protection from violence and abuse, and the support necessary to education, employment, happiness and healing. To the youth I talk to, that is justice.
I know that people look to the courts for justice, and for fairness in administrative and due process. But young people are looking to their families and to their community for justice. I was in a community that has per capita the highest suicide rate of teens in the world. In Canada. There was a girl who had been brutally sexually assaulted, and when she disclosed, she was treated with hostility not only by the police, defence counsel, and the courts, but by the whole community. I know that everybody always hears stories like that. But, she wrote a poem, and there was a line that said,
“Do I die, or try to live long enough to see justice” If we don’t at least talk about justice, some of our children will die, without ever having known or seen justice.
Save the Children-Canada
Out From the Shadows and Into the Light
2177 West 42nd Ave.
Vancouver, British Columbia
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