Activists in Berlin take part in a “Walk for Freedom” to protest human trafficking in 2018. CNS photo/Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters

Speaking Out: We all have a role in fighting trafficking

  • January 26, 2022

This past week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leanne Timko. She is the director of learning services for the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) and an instrumental builder of the school board’s new human trafficking awareness education program. 

The grand hope of this new learning module is that it will arm CCSD teachers, educational assistants and administrators with the tools and knowledge to help identify and protect students at enhanced risk of being trafficked.

The school board had a powerful ally on its side to help craft these resources. Country music star Paul Brandt — “Alberta Bound” at his core — has done a fantastic job alongside his wife Liz in founding #NotInMyCity, an organization drawing attention from coast to coast through its mission to end sexual exploitation. I appreciate that reps from this non-profit worked closely with Timko and her team to cut to the core of how schools can help end this awful pandemic called human trafficking.

Before I chose a couple of years ago to start educating myself about the true nature and system of trafficking, my perspective and knowledge about this societal issue was largely informed by movies, particularly the thriller Taken.

Count me as one of the millions of film fans worldwide who got swept up by Liam Neeson using his “very particular set of skills” to save his daughter after traffickers abducted her on a European vacation. I assumed that this is what trafficking looks like in most instances.

But it’s not.

All the experts I’ve had the privilege of interviewing this past year have emphasized that traffickers are very methodical at identifying targets, forging a relationship while discovering their victim’s vulnerabilities, and then flipping the switch to exploit the victim.

Timko told me that youth could be particularly vulnerable to trafficking schemes because young people have a strong desire to have strong connections with others at school, home, on sports teams or in extracurricular clubs.

I agree with Timko’s point. It is tough to be the kid sitting at a table by him or herself while being surrounded by large groups of friends sitting together laughing, sharing stories and having the time of their lives. And I can’t even begin to fully comprehend the emptiness and hurt of a kid who feels invisible even in their own home.

These experiences of extreme loneliness and depression existed before COVID-19 arrived. But now, these harmful feelings have been magnetized as kids have to spend a sad — and incalculably damaging — amount of time sitting alone in front of a computer screen to complete remote learning.

And even when students are completing in-person learning, pandemic restrictions have largely stripped away extracurricular activities, assemblies, school Masses or even those little cherished hallway interactions at the start or end of school and between classes.

It is not a revelation in the slightest when mainstream media report that the pandemic has produced a rise in trafficking cases. This pandemic has battered down even the brightest, “going places” young people. Not to mention that online anonymity can allow a 40-year-old male to pretend he is a 16-year-old girl.

I am glad that CCSD is raising awareness about youth human trafficking. We need to see other Catholic and public-school districts across Canada follow Calgary’s lead. And youth can also play a role in this effort to safeguard their friends and peers. Could you send a friendly text or social media post to a kid you notice is usually alone? Can you set aside extra time to talk to your buddy who appears to be going through hardship?

I believe in the power of little kindnesses going a long way. I hope you do too.   

(Amundson is The Register’s Youth Editor.)

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