The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children on the West Coast of Canada
By David Antrobus
[This article is an attempt to educate others in North America who may believe Canada is relatively free from such issues as child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. I believe this misrepresentation is partly due to the disproportionate attention paid to such issues as they occur in the United States alone, and that this so-called friendly—polite even—country to the North is just as capable of harbouring dark crimes against children and youth as its Southern neighbour.]
I work as a Youth Outreach Street Worker in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, the wonderfully progressive Province in which the possession of child pornography is currently legal (if photographs of a crime are allowable, what chance do the sexually exploited children on our streets have?). I see the apathy towards protecting our children and youth as symptomatic of larger concerns. Our society, it seems—despite apparently lionising the idea of youth in popular culture—is deeply antagonistic in actuality towards its children. Witness myriad examples; the heated debate on "spanking" (as if physically assaulting those smaller and weaker than ourselves can ever be justified); the paucity of social and recreational facilities for youth in most of our communities; the clamour for the raising to adult court of any youth charged with a serious violent crime, indeed the increasing focus in our communities on crime committed by kids instead of on crimes committed towards them; the catering to the "mainstream" at the expense of marginalized youth; loitering and skateboarding by-laws; and many other instances.
Ultimately, this climate has made it possible for the many who prey on children to ply their trade with relative impunity. Children and youth who are already disposable—kicked out of their homes, or runaways due to previous or ongoing abuse, turned away by many of the very agencies that were set up to protect them in the first place—gravitate inexorably to the streets and its attendant well-documented dangers. The connection between predators, drugs, violence, and sexual exploitation conspires to ensnare our lonely and frightened children, and the injury is compounded by the cruel insult of the community's subsequent rejection of them. They are seen as a scourge, street trash, mall rats, squeegee kids, troublesome barriers to the smooth running of our communities. As an illustration of this, I encounter considerable numbers of merchants and other adult residents who blame "streetkids" for ailing businesses in the downtown core, despite the fact that British Columbia has been relatively economically depressed due to a combination of questionable provincial politics, the reliance created by the region's links with Asia and the Pacific Rim economies, and other localized economic factors. No, it's the youth who are frightening away our elderly customers, they assert. I challenge this attitude weekly on the streets of this small Fraser Valley community, to the degree that I've been on one occasion (embarrassingly, not to mention heatedly) nose-to-nose, voices raised, with a member of the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in front of a video arcade at 11:00 pm on a Friday night.
Meanwhile, some of our teenage girls are being lured into limousines, in the back of which they perform sexual acts on local men (usually friends of the limousine company operators although not necessarily).
Meanwhile, kids who have nowhere left to turn—who, for whatever reason, cannot go home yet are deemed undeserving of services by pitifully overworked and underfunded local child protection agencies—discover other kids in their situation downtown. They then hang out, for instance, at a local religiously affiliated soup kitchen/drop-in, in which many older men with possible sexual dysfunctions discover that there is a rich seam of desperate homeless young girls and boys to be mined, some as young as 10. This place is certainly well-meaning, and is genuinely attempting to integrate the youth with the adults, but inevitably is understaffed and underfunded like everyone else. And I don't want to suggest that every adult who needs their help is a sexual predator—far from it—but it happens, and we seem powerless to stop it when it does happen.
Meanwhile, some of our kids find their way to larger urban centers such as the city of Vancouver and its suburbs. The subsequent track can then lead to other cities in British Columbia, or Edmonton, Calgary, Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco. These kids are no longer this community's problem, we can now say (with sighs of relief, no doubt, from some); too bad they left of their own free will, we could have helped 'em if they'd stayed. I would love to take some of these smug self-righteous people to a trick pad in one of our great Canadian cities, and let them watch as a girl of 14 is raped by, say, a dozen local men who return to their wives and children afterwards. One of the most haunting images that returns uncomfortably often after listening to many of the girls involved in the sex trade is their consistent description of the inside of the John's car; inevitably, they emphasise the baby seat in the back. And they all look horrified and sickened when they speak of it.
Meanwhile, local special interest groups, usually with fundamentalist religious affiliations, pressure our schools not to inform our children of these, and related, dangers. Such groups decry what they perceive as an increase in "childrens' rights" or, worse still, the forces of "tolerance" which appear to have become a modern day scourge in their eyes. These attacks on our small, hard-earned gains towards a more compassionate response to the plight of many of our children in Canada, appear to be nothing more than thinly disguised attempts to reassert such traditional values as "children should be seen and not heard," and "spare the rod and spoil the child." These special interest groups, both political and religious, characterize our government-mandated work on the streets of our communities as a "political agenda," or as "secular ideology." The cloying stench of hypocrisy in the Fraser Valley rivals that of its brown pall of auto emissions in high summer. It seems that pollution can be of a spiritual nature, too.
Meanwhile, the average lifespan of a child in the sex trade is seven years.
Meanwhile, the average age of entry in the sex trade is 14 years.
Meanwhile, some of us—not enough, however—are getting very angry about the horrendously damaging denial that accompanies all these "meanwhiles."
This whole fast-track to oblivion begins, of course, in infancy. There are many experts better qualified than myself who will attest to the enormous influence early childhood development can have on our subsequent lives. We must support our families—emotionally, financially, even spiritually—especially at such critical times. We must make poverty our enemy, and we must educate our entire populace on the accepted and dignified ways in which we expect our children to be treated. The UN Rights of the Child have been ratified by Canada, lest we forget. Why do we consistently avoid informing our public of what that entails? Why would we seem to prefer to sweep under the rug the horrors that are revisited, generation after generation, upon our smallest and most helpless? Why are the atrocities begun in our Aboriginal Residential schools compounded by the subsequent failure to adequately identify, address, and attempt to rectify the awful fallout of such callous and arrogant Canadian government policies? The model for South African apartheid was built here in the "Great White North."
Around 25-30 women involved in the sex trade here in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are currently missing. I am not certain of numbers, but it's a safe bet that the majority of those women were sexually abused, and subsequently sexually exploited, at various points long before they reached adulthood. Some may have relocated, some possibly escaped pimps, or autonomously decided to detox, or changed identities ... but once again, it's a safe bet that a significant percentage of those women are dead. There may not be a sexual psychopath around every corner, but our urban centers are definite breeding grounds for the severely deviant criminal all the same. Girls and boys in the sex trade have virtually no protection from such people.
As a society, we don't seem to be understanding or following the links, the connections, between childhood abuse, poverty, institutional racism, the marginalization of youth, and, ultimately, violent crime and/or severe self-destructiveness. Here in Canada, despite an international reputation for tolerance and liberalism, we are nevertheless ignoring the real pain of our children, and here on the West Coast in particular, are persisting—through the tourism industry—in the enticement of the world's travelling pedophiles to have sex with our twelve year old children. The Don't! Buy! Thai! campaign, as admirable as it has been, should be amended to include Western Canada, to the eternal shame of Canadians content to hide behind the myth of friendly, vaguely liberal, neighbourly outdoors types. Don't! Buy! Eh! perhaps?
There have been some initiatives, both government and private, to counter the evils perpetrated on children here in this part of the world. But not enough. One of the keys is to educate everyone—schools, businesses, community centres, government ministries, parents, children and youth—on the dangers, and to acknowledge that in order to move forward, we have to collectively take a deep breath, stare into the mirror that is Canada, and flinch no more.
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