Portage-area residents were inspired to act after a forum on ending prostitution and human trafficking Sunday.
Hundreds of letters were signed and sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Portage-Lisgar MP Candice Bergen. There was also booths set up where people could sign up to help organizations that work directly with prostitutes and other vulnerable people on the streets.
One of the popular items, according to Tamara Weselake who headed the team of volunteers who organized the forum, was a youth education package that’s being put together by Defend Dignity, which sponsored the event.
Weselake said the youth packs are a way for people to educate their children about human trafficking and the ways recruiters use to attract at-risk youth into a dehumanizing life of prostitution.
“I was excited that people were taking it seriously that they need to educate their kids,” said Weselake, adding the overall response to the forum was very positive, especially from the Defend Dignity team.
“They were so excited because it was one of the best turnouts they had had. They said we were the smallest centre and best turnout, so good for Portage!”
More than 250 people attended the forum at Portage Alliance Church, many of whom were men.
“I was proud of the number of men who were there and didn’t think of this as just a woman’s issue,” Weselake said, adding many of them connected with speaker Dan Rossi, a Calgary police officer.
Rossi shared his experiences in defending women who are victims of abuse and sexual exploitation, including a recent lesson he learned to show compassion for the men who are the abusers, rather than judging and verbally emasculating them. He challenged the men in the audience to be respectful in how they treat women and to teach their sons to do the same.
Weselake said the audience also responded to the story of Trisha Baptie, a former prostitute from Vancouver who put a human face on the issue.
“It makes it more real for them. We had people saying they want to have further conversations about this and taking it more seriously and want to be involved,” the organizer said, adding all of the speakers had a crowd of people around them when the forum ended.
Breaking down stereotypes of prostitution and human trafficking was a key theme of the Defend Dignity forum.
Diane Redsky, project director for the National Task Force on Human Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada, said the age at which girls are lured into prostitution is getting younger and younger.
“Three years ago, they were 13,” said Redsky, an advocate for Aboriginal, children’s and women’s issues for 20 years. “Now they’re 11.”
Later, during a panel discussion, Redsky gave the audience a sense of urgency in dealing with the issue of sexual exploitation, showing how it is a form of child abuse.
“She is not a juvenile prostitute or a teen hooker,” she said. “She is a victim of child abuse and that requires your immediate attention.”
Redsky said human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is “forced prostitution. It’s one of the most extreme forms of violence against women.”
She informed the crowd that the majority of trafficking in Canada is of Canadian people, mostly vulnerable or at-risk women and children – a disproportionate number of them Aboriginal — and mostly into prostitution. Trafficking does not involve travel, but control, she said.