Aug 17 – CEASE Annual Memorial

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It was a lovely summer evening as we gathered for the 22nd time to remember the many missing and murdered women of Edmonton who lost their lives because of exploitation and violence.  Last year was a virtual event because of Covid so I was happy to greet friends of old who have shared grief and hope over the years.

Thelma and Louise (not their real names), long time survivors and educators, were monitoring the gate.  Vivacious Thelma had been trafficked by a biker gang and still bears deep scars on her throat from when she was slashed by a prominent sports figure.  To this day, she will not share her story in public for fear he will still find her and kill her.  Louise, who had been run over and left for dead, recovered and obtained her social work certificate.  Clean and sober for many years, she is now fighting cancer but is cheerfully back serving her community as best she can.

These women do not share the horrors of their life but reach deep inside themselves for strength to carry on and to support their sisters either still living in the clutches of exploitation or striving to break free.  These two seemingly ordinary women, who could be anyone’s neighbor, represent escape from a world most of us can not even imagine.  They have been touched by evil and overcome.  Their voices deserve to be heard.

Lovely gracious Marie, a fellow grieving mother, lost her only daughter in 2004.  The difference is that her Maggie is still missing.  She disappeared from the face of the earth and no trace has yet been found.  I am blessed to know Marie – her quiet grace and composure is a continuing inspiration.  She is presently helping care for her grandchildren.

Jess (not her real name) was also in attendance.  She is an attractive and successful health professional and talented artist from my community.  Few would know she had been enticed overseas as a young woman and trafficked by Asian mafia.  We can never imagine what might have happened to people we meet.  The unfairness of life overwhelmed as I greeted several survivors, some whose stories I had glimpsed, others still unknown.

Joanna, an accomplished psychologist and inspirational healer, was performing MC duties while her daughter tended the smudge fire.  Aboriginal singer Curt provided a a musical offering prior to the ceremony.

The memorial candle was lit by a member of the ALERT Human Trafficking Counter Exploitation team.  An impassioned young woman read a poem, “you will never see me fall,” and shared  her story of triumph over adversity.  Louise spoke of her determination to complete her education after being left for dead.  The very talented Janice drummed and performed songs of mourning and remembrance. 

As usual, I was prepared to say a few words on behalf of the families.  Most times I am able to stay composed but this evening I was already emotional from my visits and reflections.  My voice choking, I began…

“Ladies and gentlemen, sisters and brothers, once again I am honored to say a few words on behalf of the families.  Like many of you, I am here because I lost someone I loved.  My daughter Cara disappeared from the streets of Edmonton in 1997 – 24 years ago already – and her death, like many others, is still unsolved.

“This is our 22nd memorial.  For many years we have been gathering to remember our loved ones who were taken far too soon  Each day without them feels like a betrayal as we wonder why they were chosen to die and we were left to carry on…

And somewhere around then, my throat totally constricted and I could no longer swallow or breathe.  I reached behind me for a bottle of water and collapsed on a chair, afraid I was going to pass out.  Thankfully, others quickly sprang into action.  A young lady from the crowd, my first aid angel, called out “I know what to do – raise her hands above her head” and she raised my left arm and started tapping the side of my chest.  I remember Joanna saying. “I deal with trauma all the time and nobody ever taught me that.”

I heard somebody say, “call 911,” and I remember E.D. Kate asking if I wanted an ambulance.  I nodded and heard as part of her call, “no, there was no violence” – a reasonable question given the reputation of the area. Thelma asked if I want her to finish my speech.  I must have nodded again.  She asked how far I had read, I’m not sure I was able to speak but must have gestured.  She said, “I’ll start from the beginning.”

Part of my talk included a call to action:

“… The so-called “sex trade” is consumer driven and I believe the harm caused by buyers must be exposed.  It is not right that sex buyers are protected by society while vulnerable people are blamed for their own exploitation.

“Canada passed extraordinary legislation in 2014 called the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which criminalized the purchase of sexual services.  Unfortunately, the government changed shortly after and the Liberals have since refused to enforce the legislation.  This means municipalities, like our own City, have continued to license brothels under “body-rub” bylaws.  

“We know that grooming of young people continues, we know there is a growing pornography market, we know trafficking is increasing around the globe.  One of the most effective tools in slowing and preventing the objectification of women in to curb buyer demand.  I encourage everyone present to support politicians who support the PCEPA legislation.  This valuable tool is still within our grasp although it is being challenged on many levels. …”

And so the service continued.  I don’t remember hearing my words, the reading of the names, the moment of silence or the fire ceremony that followed.  I heard sirens and very soon was in the care of two lovely and efficient ambulance attendants.  By then I was able to breathe in shallow gasps.  They asked if I wanted to go to hospital.  I was coherent enough to say no.  I agreed to move into the building to be examined.

The first door led to what might have been a locker room because there was a small bench for me to sit.  I was quickly assessed, told my vitals were fine, albeit my blood pressure was high which was to be expected.  The attendants explained shortness of breath was a common anxiety reaction – except that it had never happened to me before in all my years of public speaking.  Once again I declined to go to hospital and was able to scrawl an electronic signature waiving the offer.  As the service was over, I shakily returned to my seat and eventually joined my fellow gatherers for a burger, graciously served by community members.

The evening ended well as my first aid angel, Gina, had attended the service with my neighbor Jess.  Kate had been advised to make sure I did not try to drive and I gratefully agreed to follow protocol.  My new friend, Gina, was able to drive me home in my own car with Jess following.

In the days that followed, I tried to untangle the threads of what happened this particular evening to choke my breath and steal the words I have been speaking for decades.  I will share more reflections about that next time.  For now I am grateful to have recovered to celebrate my 73rd birthday and to prepare for another year of advocacy.

The voices of our lost and loved ones continue to speak:

“We are no longer in the ditch or the alley or the field or the trunk of your car.  We are not even on the street corner.  We are now present in the sun that shines, the stars that twinkle in the sky, the wind that blows and the rain and snow that fall upon the earth.  We have been transformed.  Let the memory of our short lives be used for good so others can enjoy the peace and freedom that we were denied.”