The Rev. Lori Calkins speaks at the Edmonton human trafficking consultation on the Ni wapataenan ("We See") art project, which sought to raise awareness of the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Photo by Margaret Glidden

Edmonton consultation examines impact of human trafficking in Indigenous communities

From Oct. 21–24, the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land came together at the Providence Renewal Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, to learn about the scope of human trafficking in their Indigenous communities, and to develop strategies to—in the words of Archbishop and Primate Fred Hiltz—“rid the world of this evil”.

Two similar consultations on human trafficking took place in April 2018, one for the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario in Pickering, Ont., and the other for the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada in St. John’s, Nfld. The fourth and final consultation will be for the Ecclesiastical Province of B.C. and Yukon, and is scheduled for early next year.

Ryan Weston and Andrea Mann, General Synod lead staff for the consultations, have attended all three conferences.

“The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the impacts of trafficking on Indigenous communities was a much more heightened issue in this [regional] context,” Weston said.

“It was something that wove through everything in a more intentional way, I think, than it did in the others … and I think we also had stronger Indigenous participation in this one as well, which helped to keep those issues front and centre.”

Many of the participants at the gathering were either Indigenous, or had experience working in Indigenous communities in capacities that related to missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The Rev. Lori Calkins fits into both of these categories. Calkins is a Métis priest in the Diocese of Edmonton, and is part of its Indigenous Ministries Initiative Team. She currently splits her time between working as an associate pastor at St. Paul’s Anglican Church and participating in community initiatives related to truth, reconciliation, and healing.

One such community initiative was Ni wapataenan (Michif for “We see”). The project was a large scale collaborative public art installation that suspended 40 red dresses on shorn branches, in the streets of an Edmonton neighbourhood. The goal of the art installation was to bring attention to the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

Calkins was reminded of the many reasons that the red dress installation was called “We see” when she listened to the experiences of one of the guest speakers.

“She described for us how isolated and alone she often felt,” Calkins recalled. “She would see people passing her on the street and they would avoid eye contact, or look away altogether. She told us, ‘Nobody saw me.’  And then she told us about a day where she was feeling extremely hopeless and alone, and a stranger walked past her and looked her in the eyes and smiled, and that one, small act of connection gave her the strength and the courage to make it through the day.”

“Those three words, ‘nobody saw me’, have stayed with me. How often, I wonder, do I look away from or avoid someone who is different from me, whose life, I imagine, is very different from mine? […] At the heart of human trafficking is value judgment—the judgment that someone else’s person, their life or body or work or time, is of less value in some way than mine, and, therefore, open for my exploitation or gain. And I can only judge someone as being of less value than me in some way if I do not see them.”

Temporary foreign workers

The plight of migrant workers in Alberta was also an issue that was discussed at the consultations. In Edmonton alone, tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers from the Philippines live and work in the city. Many of them are exploited for their labour and are precariously employed.

“I found out more about temporary foreign workers than I had known before, and began to realize that that’s a huge issue that I actually probably run into when I go and get my nails done or have coffee at Tim Hortons,” said the Rev. Canon Mary Lysecki.

Lysecki is interim incumbent at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Fort Garry, and a former director at the North Point Douglas Women’s Centre in Winnipeg. She also previously served as co-chair for the city’s annual Sisters in Spirit march to remember missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“I was aware of some workers, but I hadn’t really thought that much about nannies and household help and people who work in nail salons and all those things that are also being treated badly by the way that the immigration policies are set up.”

The Rev. Quinn Strikwerda is vicar of All Saints Cathedral in Edmonton, and is also active in local street outreach ministry and prison chaplaincy. He was struck by the stark realities described by representatives of Migrante Alberta—a provincial advocacy group for Filipino migrant workers, and member of KAIROS Canada.

“For some of them, the experience is OK, but for a lot of them, they have very little recourse to justice if they’re not being treated fairly,” Strikwerda said. “And there’s always that threat of deportation that’s hanging over them. So that was quite an eye-opener for me.”

Plans of action

In the latter part of the consultation, participants worked with others in diocesan or regional groups to plan how could apply what they had learned.

Strikwerda and Calkins, who attended together as representatives of the Diocese of Edmonton, have already set up a meeting with Bishop Jane Alexander. They are hoping to launch an awareness campaign to bring attention to human trafficking issues at the diocesan level.

Migrante Alberta asked participants at the consultation to download and sign a letter from the KAIROS Canada website and send it to their MP. The letter urges Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to make sure that the successor to the federal Caregiver Pilot Program protects migrant caregivers—including incorporating provisions that would allow them to become permanent residents of Canada.

Further proposals for action by the wider church will likely follow the fourth consultation and presentation of results at General Synod 2019 in Vancouver.

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