Gina whispered, “Things are going to be okay now, they will take us away to a better home or maybe back to our parents!!” as we nodded our heads believing her. I was the youngest at age 10; then there was Patti, who was a year older; and Gina, who was the eldest and also our fearless leader, who tried so hard to keep us safe. Earlier that day, we’d run away from our abusive and neglectful adoptive home. After school, with fierce determination, Gina took us into town 30 minutes away. We caught a ride on the school bus back to the bus garage and then walked to the nearby Children’s Aid Society (CAS) office.
At first, the CAS workers seemed concerned and we hoped they believed us. Instead, they put us in their car and took us right back to the same abusive adoptive home. We were sent to our room to await our fate. It wasn’t long before we heard the CAS workers climb into their car and drive away, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Gina’s head slumped in disappointment. Then we all began to sob because we knew punishment would come swiftly and no one would save us.
Children’s Aid Society and the settler colonial state not only facilitated Colleen and her sisters’ forced removal/adoption — which took them away from their family and territory in an attempt to erase who they were as Plains Cree — but the state also failed in its responsibility to protect them as children and young women. After their first attempt to run away together, Colleen, Gina and Patti eventually ran away on their own — each a year apart, and each time to escape physical and sexual violence. Colleen ran away at the age of fifteen. Eventually, with encouragement and support from childhood friends, she met with Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and CAS to recount every single incident of abuse she had witnessed and endured in that household. They would call upon her older sisters to corroborate her story and subsequently testify against their adoptive father in court. He was convicted and ordered to pay restitution to Colleen’s older sisters for the sexual abuse they endured without any protection from their adoptive mother.
By December 1989, Colleen and her sisters were reunited in Edmonton, Alberta. While getting to know their biological family, they still faced poverty, lack of education, and no access to the resources and support they desperately needed. They smoked pot occasionally, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and drank to cope with the horrific trauma they had endured in earlier years and had not yet addressed. Although they were still teenagers, they had little to no family support. They fended for themselves, and each day was devoted to survival.
Earlier this year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report detailing the Sixties Scoop and violence against Indigenous women and girls. These social (in)justice issues, however, seem to remain distinct from one another within the report. As mainstream Indigenous organizations continue to treat the two issues as separate, the discussions surrounding both issues also ignore how ongoing colonial policies impact the lives of Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women and girls.
The TRC report defines reconciliation as a meaningful and mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples. It contains over ninety recommendations — or “calls to action” — to inform the reconciliation process. Some of these include the monitoring of Indigenous child apprehension in comparison to non-Indigenous child apprehension, and supporting culturally relevant care for Indigenous children apprehended in state care. The report also calls for a national inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
In the call for a national inquiry, the report specifically suggested that the inquiry’s mandate include “links to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools.” Sure, an inquiry can inform the general public on the proper issues and responses to MMIWG. And sure, an inquiry can provide some small measure of justice to the families of MMIWG. Yet today, even without an inquiry, we can point to some links to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools. This legacy includes the growing number of Indigenous children in state care due to the lack of access to safe and adequate housing on reserve, as well as the extreme poverty that exists in Indigenous communities. Inadequate and unsafe housing, which is a manifestation of extreme poverty in reality, is considered a “push” factor when it comes to human trafficking of Indigenous women/girls, where human trafficking is usually conflated with prostitution by mainstream Indigenous organizations.
Yet before examining such legacies — like unsafe and inadequate housing — as sites of violence in the lives of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, many Indigenous organizations will be quick to treat the Sixties Scoop and violence against Indigenous women and girls as separate issues — thereby ignoring the history of state-sanctioned trafficking of Indigenous children and ongoing colonial policies that continue to create violence in the lives of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. These same organizations will also be quick to point to prostitution as the sole problem that permits human trafficking to take place, instead of examining, for example, how the lack of safe and adequate housing in our communities pushes Indigenous women and girls into unsafe situations.
In the larger picture, the intergenerational legacy of residential schools, violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the impact of colonial policies — including the criminalization of Indigenous people — all reveal the true intent of the colonial state: to get rid of the Indian problem.
As Indigenous women living and working in the same communities that are targeted by ongoing colonial policies — like the ongoing criminalization of prostitution and the increased political rhetoric surrounding human trafficking — we are here to shift the discussion surrounding MMIWG2S (missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people). We are here to reexamine and outline what is missing from the conversation. We are here to name the Sixties Scoop for what it was: the state-sanctioned human trafficking of Indigenous peoples. We are here to call attention to the problems with conflating human trafficking with prostitution. Explicitly, we are here to highlight the failures of many — including many of our own Indigenous leaders and mainstream Indigenous organizations — to critically analyze and counter the political rhetoric surrounding the dominant human trafficking/anti-prostitution narrative that continues to criminalize our communities, and replace it with a narrative informed by the principles of reconciliation: a meaningful and mutually respectful relationship, especially between Indigenous sex workers and non-sex workers.
After running away from their adoptive home, Colleen and her sisters escaped one abusive situation to face a new kind of violence in Edmonton. In their new adoptive household, they lived with non-Indigenous parents and their non-Indigenous brother. Their surrounding community was predominantly white — their brown features were noticeable in this sea of whiteness. They heard racial slurs in their adoptive household, references to “Indians” as “squaws,” “wagon burners” and “drunken bums.” When they lived in this abusive household, they did not fully understand the context of these derogatory names, because they didn’t even know they were Indigenous until their early teens. The older they got, the more aware they became about how their Indigeneity did not fit into their white community, and eventually how their Indigeneity did not fit into white Canadian society as a whole.
In Alberta, racism was and is normalized, and the violence that Colleen and her sisters faced in their day-to-day routines of shopping, banking, and walking down a street was palpable. They were targets for racist, misogynistic slurs and rude service and targeted as shoplifters by store and mall security. They received angry stares simply for existing in spaces where they were not welcomed.
A year after Gina found Colleen’s biological parents and reunited their family, the police discovered her body in a downtown Edmonton park. Gina was murdered only a week after receiving restitution money for the sexual abuse she had endured at the hands of Colleen’s adoptive father. The front page of the Edmonton Sun showed a photo of a few male detectives standing over a body covered by a tarp, with a leg sticking out, and on the following page, her body being wheeled out in a body bag on a gurney. That day the media published the story, Colleen recalls glancing at the paper that morning; she would learn that evening, with horrified dismay, that it was Gina’s body being displayed on the front page. The media was relentless and brutal when describing Gina’s body and the clothing she was found in. She was immediately dehumanized, portrayed as a woman with dark skin found dead in a park known for drugs and prostitutes.
Colleen was seventeen years old with a newborn baby when she found out her sister had been murdered. There would be no grief counseling or visits from victim services, no outreach from crisis services. There would only be relentless phone calls from the media looking to smear Gina on their front pages.
In media accounts, Gina was described as coming from a troubled home, running away to the bright lights of Toronto as a sex worker, and eventually ending up in Edmonton, married with two children, hoping for a better life for her and her children. But settler colonialism, racism, and misogyny were erased from the bigger picture of her fierce life, as were the very real ways that violence shaped her life as a First Nations woman in Canadian society. Gina survived the abuse and violence of the colonial state, from the forced removal from her home and community, only to lose her life in an act of targeted violence.
Then, after a murderer brutalized her body in a park, the media dragged her memory through the mud once more. After her body was found, mainstream media insinuated Gina was a sex worker, though at the time of her death she was she was not engaging in sex work. Both mainstream media and policing agencies, like the RCMP, are quick to point to sex work or substance use as explanations for MMIWG2S, but Gina’s death reminds us that not all MMIWG2S are sex workers. We must acknowledge these stereotypical and stigmatizing assumptions and insinuations for what they are: prejudice and victim blaming.Still, history repeats itself, and twenty-five years ago Gina was Tina Fontaine, Cindy Gladue and the hundreds of other Indigenous women who have died violent deaths labelled as high-risk youth or women by the police, stakeholders, policy makers and media. Unanswered questions linger: how many of those missing or murdered Indigenous women and two-spirit people were trafficked through Canada’s child welfare system during the Sixties Scoop, and how many do we continue to erase when we ignore the role that Canada’s current child welfare system and anti-human trafficking policies continue to play in the issue of MMIWG2S?
Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Naomi Sayers began escorting as a way to supplement her minimum-wage income and pay her rent and bills. She was still in high school and learning to navigate a new life with a brain injury. She had been in a car accident at the age of fifteen, and the accident had left her with permanent hearing loss, vision loss, and memory loss. Naomi was also living away from home in the city closest to her reserve, a small northern community.
Sex work in rural and northern communities is far different than sex work in urban centres. Sex work in northern communities means relying heavily on other individuals for support and safety, and sometimes means working for an “agency” run by a third party. A third party is anyone who does not offer or sell sexual services; rather, the third party manages the individuals who sell sexual services. Oftentimes, these third parties have access to client lists, black lists, reliable drivers, and an understanding of proper advertising for rural and northern regions. The third parties will place ads, screen clients, and decline known unreliable or bad clients, and their drivers will drive the sex worker to the location and pick them up as well. Sex work in rural and northern communities often means relying on these third parties for safety, because all too often, working in these communities means driving long distances to see one client. And all too often, sex workers need to be able to rely on third parties to arrive home safely to their families at the end of the day. Many people trade and sell sex for things other than money. Sometimes, in rural and northern communities, people may trade sexual services for a ride to town, a bed to sleep in or for a meal to eat.
Sex work, for Naomi, meant all of the above: relying on third parties for safety and security, and trading sex for things other than money. She spent a few years in the industry as an escort and then, shortly after turning twenty, she decided to start stripping. Naomi continued to work as a sex worker in the city near her community — everyone, including their grandmothers, knew about her sex work. While she moved back home, she still continued to work at the local club. Her parents sometimes drove her to work. Concerned about her safety, they wanted to make sure she arrived at work safely and came back home to sleep in her bed. Under the definition of human trafficking, authorities would view Naomi as a trafficking victim. Authorities would also consider her parents driving her to work as the persons enabling or facilitating the trafficking.
While still doing sex work, Naomi moved away from northern Ontario. Even though Naomi migrated voluntarily, she would still be considered a trafficking victim. Essentially, the authorities will view any Indigenous woman or girl who leaves the reserve in search of a better life or better-paying labour options as a trafficked victim. These kinds of overbroad definitions of trafficking victims and trafficking scenarios, void of any critical anti-colonial analysis, create victims where there are none; the overbroad definitions also feed into the white-saviour complex, with which colonial institutions and their practices in “saving” Indigenous women and girls are legitimized without question.
Most dangerously, when the colonial state views all prostitution as human trafficking, these overbroad definitions contribute to the forced removal of Indigenous women and girls from their communities all in the name of “saving” and “protecting” them. In other words, the blind acceptance of the political rhetoric surrounding the human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls is one of the many links to the intergenerational residential school legacy, like Canada’s current child welfare system.
As a young Indigenous girl in an unsafe home, Jessica knew that going into the system would be a worse fate than staying at home. She decided at a very young age that it wasn’t going to happen to her. As a teenager, that knowledge both informed and limited her options: she could find an older boyfriend, face systemic violence in the system, or turn to sex work/trade.
That reality persists for many Indigenous girls and women today — being forced to choose among the different kinds of exploitation you think could be better than the exploitation you’re experiencing. How do you make such an impossible choice? Why would any Indigenous youth choose exploitation over being a ward of the state (another form of exploitation)?
Ironically, if you choose sex work as an alternative to these colonial supports, the state will punish you. In Alberta, sexually exploited youth are incarcerated in “secure care” for their own “protection,” while the conditions that led their sexual exploitation remain unresolved. Reinforcing colonial responses in the face of exploitation creates a commodity out of sexually exploited Indigenous youth. There are entire systems built around the intervention, apprehension and detainment of Indigenous youth, resulting in colonial economies based on these systems. Just look to the recent expose on the number of children in state care in Manitoba, children whose lives were forgotten — wards of the state living in hotels whose lives ended in tragedy. Does anyone remember the haunting exploitation and murder of Tina Fontaine, whose life was cut short at fifteen years? Does anyone recall how the welfare state and the police state consistently failed her in compounding ways? Moving Tina into the system as a ward of the state resulted in funding for police, social workers, temporary supervisors, court systems, and legal advocates. But for Tina and her family, not one ounce of safety or justice — just like Colleen, Gina and Patti decades earlier.
Odds are, had Jessica revealed her personal circumstances and allowed herself to be apprehended and placed in care, she wouldn’t have had any agency to choose her circumstances. A brutal but compelling truth that so many young Indigenous people continue to face today while in state care, avoiding care, or once they have aged out of care.
The recent changes to prostitution laws in Canada perpetuate this cycle of paternal systemic victimhood. If you find yourself in survival sex work or you choose sex work as an alternative to these colonial supports/oppressions, the state will punish you. It will continue to regulate and constrain the safe choices or the agency you could exercise within sex work as well. Despite what supporters of the new prostitution laws say, these laws do not decriminalize any part of the transaction; the government just re-enacted similar laws that were struck down and criminalized other actions surrounding the selling/trading of sex, including advertising.
Since the passage of Bill C-36, the state has created an impossible legal landscape for sex workers and sexually exploited youth to navigate and prioritize their own safety. The criminal code is now less conscientious in prioritizing safety and security, and more punitive for Indigenous women and girls, than it was before the Bedford decision. We have seen an over-criminalization of Indigenous women and girls since the passing of these laws. One of the first of many to be charged with trafficking a person under the age of 18 was a young Indigenous woman, Tina’s own cousin. The names of the two men who were also charged at this time did not make it into media accounts. Not only was Tina’s cousin outed as a sex worker, the focus on Tina’s family took the responsibility away from colonial child welfare agencies and the police. You see, it’s really the fault of Tina’s family. Predictably, her cousin’s own notoriety in relation to Tina’s death has grown larger than those personally and legally responsible for Tina’s welfare — the state and the police.
Still, if mainstream Indigenous organizations continue to indiscriminately accept the political rhetoric surrounding human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls, these organizations and others run into the danger of ignoring the lived realities of many Indigenous sex workers and actual human trafficking victims in need of real and legitimate help. When we ignore the experiences of Indigenous sex workers, it means we also ignore how Indigenous sex workers rely on others — including their own family members — for safety and security. We also ignore the violence Indigenous sex workers experience at the hands of the police, a reality for many Indigenous sex workers working in a criminalized state.
We only know about the Tinas and Ginas because of their tragic fates. But how many wards of the state are giving birth to more wards of the state? Colonial child welfare departments do not keep numbers on this, but the generational impact on a single aboriginal family can be multigenerational. The TRC report pointed to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools. The apprehension of Indigenous children from the first residential school, through the Sixties scoop, to our current child “welfare” system is all part of our national economy.
As a result of buying into the political rhetoric surrounding human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls and ignoring the lived realities of Indigenous sex workers, many mainstream Indigenous organizations and communities risk ignoring the violence all Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people experience. It also means that many mainstream Indigenous organizations ignore any meaningful and mutually respectful discussion surrounding the experiences of Indigenous sex workers, many who have been historically targeted and continue to be targeted by colonial violence simply because they are Indigenous and simply because they sell or trade sex. Ignoring the lives and experiences of Indigenous sex workers also means erasing their expertise and knowledge of the sex trade, including how human trafficking occurs and how the ongoing criminalization of sex work creates a ripe environment for human trafficking to take place — since we all know, dating all the way back to the nineteenth century, that criminalizing prostitution has never ended any kind of human trafficking.
Recently, in a different province, Bradley Barton was acquitted of the murder of Cindy Gladue. He argued it was an accident that he left her to die in his bathtub. But the cases of Tina and Cindy show that violence and justice are not colourblind in Canada. The disturbing pattern is that white men walk and Indigenous people are incarcerated. Indigenous women and girls are brutally murdered and violated, with impunity, at a growing rate. Tina may have been a sexually exploited youth, but she was an Indigenous child in the care of the state and severely neglected by the state. Cindy Gladue was an Indigenous woman who happened to be doing some form of sex work. They were both murdered with impunity because they were Indigenous, and the RCMP and the media continue to blame sex work and sexual exploitation.
When the verdict involving Cindy Gladue’s murder was delivered, Naomi was disgusted with the justice system and felt hurt for Cindy’s family. Like Cindy, Naomi also used substances while working. Like Cindy, Naomi’s boyfriend also drove her to work. And similar to Cindy’s boyfriend, Naomi’s boyfriend also checked in with her for safety reasons via phone call or text while she worked. Cindy, Gina and Naomi have these shared experiences, and the only difference between the three is that Naomi is here to tell her story as an Indigenous woman with sex working experience. In her writings and guest lectures, Naomi shares her experiences in the sex trade, and how policies meant to protect her permitted violence to occur without question.
As mainstream anti-violence organizations — including Indigenous and non-Indigenous anti-violence organizations — continue to receive the bulk of the funding to help “fight” trafficking, we have to deepen our analysis and understanding of Canada’s current anti-human trafficking policies and child welfare policies, examining them from an anti-colonial perspective. Just because an organization says it is an “anti-violence” organization does not mean it is anti-colonial. If we continue to ignore the ongoing colonial policies that impact the lives of all Indigenous people, we only serve to perpetuate the violence in the lives of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, including those who are targeted by current child-welfare policies and anti-human trafficking policies. If we continue to blindly accept the political rhetoric surrounding human trafficking, we continue to legitimize the colonial institutions and all of its white-saviour bullshit — the same bullshit that was meant to “protect” women and girls like Gina, Cindy and Tina.
The new prostitution laws will do nothing to protect a single sex worker, and will continue to do nothing to protect Indigenous women and girls. Provisions about trafficking were already present in the criminal code, with the most difficult provision to prove it: fear. If that is correct, then the welfare state in Canada is a trafficker. If that is correct, the police who let Tina go the night she was killed are traffickers. Tina was undoubtedly afraid of the system she was in and afraid of being taken further into custody.
More troubling, the new law views all sex workers, regardless of age, as victims. In the eyes of our current Canadian state, each adult sex worker is a criminalized victim and a victimized criminal. This rhetoric is the same used when the state forced Indigenous persons to attend residential school, when the state trafficked Indigenous children during the Sixties scoop, and when the state forced Indigenous youth into state care. The state commodifies us as victims, builds entire economies around our regulation, patriarchal economies that reinforce old narratives: Indigenous women and girls are promiscuous, available for violence and sex, lascivious tastes, and responsible for our own deaths.
The media and the state are still as violent as ever, especially when they utilize harmful stereotypes and continue to dehumanize Indigenous bodies when talking about Indigenous issues and MMIWG2S. Labelling MMIWG2S as high-risk, trafficked/prostituted, troubled runaways but not acknowledging the forced child-welfare policies that put Indigenous people at risk for violence, disappearance, and death is both disingenuous and dangerous.
“Discovering that my sisters and I were not alone and had been trafficked (i.e. forcibly taken across ‘borders’) along with thousands of other Indigenous children into non-Indigenous households across Canada, the United States and overseas has been a powerful catalyst for my writing, filmmaking, activism and community-building work,” says Colleen. She acknowledges that she carries with her throughout her daily life Gina’s “fierce as fuck” attitude, and continues to honour her spirit every single day. As should the rest of us.
Colleen Hele - Cardinal, nêhiyaw-iskwêw - Amiskwacīwiyiniwak is an adoptee of the Sixties scoop and the daughter of a residential school survivor who organizes with Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS) and speaks publicly about murdered and missing Indigenous women, drawing connections between genocidal colonial policies and the lived experiences of the women in her family. Naomi Sayers is an Anishnaabe Kwe, indigenous feminist, and sex work activist with experience working in the sex trade in various places in Canada, including northern Ontario. As VP-women's representative for the Aboriginal People's Commission for the Liberal Party of Canada from 2012-2014, Naomi drafted a policy resolution calling for the party's support on MMIW actions; this policy passed unanimously at the party's last convention. She writes at kwetoday.com and is currently studying law at the University of Ottawa. Jessica Wood is Gitxan / Tsimshian from Northern BC. A queer-identified artist, activist, researcher, and community planner, Jessica has been working on issues related to violence against Indigenous women and girls for over fifteen years.