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Racism and Discrimination towards Indigenous youth:

The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Examining the role of racism and discrimination in social problems and delinquency for Indigenous youth[1] in Canada, also requires highlighting resilience factors such as connections to culture and community. Here, the focus is the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the policies and practices that funnel at-risk students “out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems” (Gray, 2019, p. 222). Statistics show that Indigenous youth are more likely to go to prison than to graduate high school as compared to non-Indigenous youth (Gebhard, 2012, p. 7). For any intervention aimed to reverse these statistics so that Indigenous youth can expect to go to university rather than prison (at the same rate as non-Indigenous youth), one must understand the impacts of colonization and systemic racism on the outcomes and life chances of Indigenous youth.

It is important to consider that any examination of risk factors for Indigenous youth must also be accompanied by a focus on resilience and strengths, as protective factors. Otherwise, there is a risk of pathologizing Indigenous people, blaming them for social problems, which reinforces the deficit lens that underlies the stereotyping and discrimination they face, and deflects the attention away from the source of harm (colonization and systemic racism). A focus on resilience is also necessary because there is an ethical imperative that any research examining the negative outcomes of racism on the mental wellbeing of Indigenous youth must be accompanied by interventions that support their resilience and enhance their mental wellness, and vice versa (Gebhard, 2018, p. 758). Indeed, a focus on culture alone can risk being a performative exercise that denies the impact of racism on Indigenous youth in the education system (Gebhard, 2018, p. 775). 

It is also important to note how gender interacts with risks and resilience, ias intersectionality indeed plays a role. Research shows (Blume et al. 2019, p. 392) that Indigenous females as well as two-spirit and gender diverse individuals are far more likely to experience more adverse effects of racism and discrimination, and heightened risks for internalizing problems such as depression, and for being targeted with violence and sexual assault, and ultimately, suicide and homelessness. Indigenous females are also more likely to receive heavier, more punitive prison sentences than Indigenous males, and non-Indigenous females (Alberton et al. 2021, p. 5 & 12). It is therefore recommended to keep a gender-specific and intersectional lens in mind when designing and implementing interventions among Indigenous youth.

Further, due to the complexity of the topic of the impacts of systemic racism, here the main focus will be on the role of racism in schools, as this has the greatest impact on the wellbeing of Indigenous youth, as the school climate can shape either risk or resilience.

Colonization and Systemic Racism as Risk factors

Indigenous peoples have long endured Canada’s program of forced assimilation policies through Residential Schools, Indian Hospitals, forced relocations to remote reserves, prohibiting languages and ceremonies, control over Indigenous identity and mobility through the Indian Act and the pass system, adoption and foster care tearing family and community apart, control over land and resources, chronic underfunding of basic services in Indigenous communities (clean drinking water, housing, education, healthcare, etc.) and other ongoing interferences with Indigenous sovereignty. These are all examples of processes originating in European colonization that impact a range of Indigenous experiences and compound with the systemic inequities that Indigenous people continue to face (Hautala and Sittner, 2019, p. 697). Systemic racism is thus defined as a multigenerational cycle that empowers EuroWestern dominance and maintains systemic inequities such as poverty, overincarceration and overrepresentation of Indigenous children in child welfare systems.

To connect these broader systems with mental health, the diathesis-stress model identifies pre-existing vulnerability (diathesis), or a potential for mental health issues due to genetics, interacting with certain environmental conditions (sources of stress). Other factors include substance use, responses to rejection by partners or friends, and school failure (Arnett, 2018, p. 404). Protective factors that can prevent externalizing and internalizing problems and support positive outcomes “include effective schools, social supports and additional resources” (Russell et al., 2021, p. 1). Individual factors such as “emotion regulation and problem solving skills, faith, and a belief that life has meaning” (Russell et al., 2021, p. 1), then interact with environmental factors in a reciprocal interaction.

One of the protective factors is school climate, which is the term used to describe the quality and types of interactions that the teachers have with the students, the expectations, and teaching methods. Research indicates that school climate is the most important determining factor in school success (Arnett, 2018, p. 307). A positive school climate is correlated with higher engagement and achievement, and less behaviour and mental health issues. Unfortunately, for Indigenous youth, high school drop out rates remain very high, compared with non-Indigenous youth (Gebhard, 2013, p. 2).

Anti-Indigenous racism at the systemic, institutional, and interpersonal levels all contribute to “race-related stress” for Indigenous youth at school. Race-related stress brings about higher levels of cortisol, overburdening the allostatic systems of the body, and increasing the possibility of illness, and ultimately affecting the body at a cellular level, as “embodied stress” (Harrell 2000, p. 7 & Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80). This can engender internalized stigma and identity development issues. These patterns “are associated with their increased risk for mental health problems” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80 & Ward, 2018, p. 21).

This multilayered Indigenous-specific racism and stereotyping is deeply engrained in Canadian socialization, and have become normalized in institutions to a point where it has become a ‘normal way of working’ (Harding, 2019, p. 5 & Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 697). Stereotyping and racism then further work to blame and pathologize Indigenous people for their social problems that are actually a result of colonization and systemic racism (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 698). “The several ways in which racism is denied is in itself constituted racist practice because the issue could not then be considered for its contribution(s) to lack of academic success” (Gebhard, 2013, p. 3).

Anti-Indigenous racism that is interwoven in the school climate then compounds with racism experienced by Indigenous people in the broader society and in the media, such as police harassment, interference by child welfare, housing discrimination, vicarious racism (hearing about other Indigenous people who have been harmed), being followed in a store, not being served in hospitality settings, etc.

In education, systemic racism is evident in the (lack of) allocation of resources and services that support Indigenous students to succeed, and at the institutional level, “a normalized culture of lowered expectations” (Gebhard, 2018, p. 760). Additionally, for hundreds of years, the education system in Canada has purposefully obscured the dark realities of colonization, championing an ‘explorer’ point of view and the erasure of Indigenous experiences, in order to perpetuate a myth of benevolence in Canadian socialization, as a form of Nation-building. A biased education that favours settler-colonial narratives and the denial of racism (Gebhard, 2018, p. 762), combined with “the predominantly White teaching force is understood here as indicative of a larger issue, which is the operation of Whiteness within the Canadian education system” (Gebhard, 2013, p.4 & Harding 2019, p. 38).

When racism and discrimination set the tone for school climate – when Indigenous youth endure repeated verbal and psychological assault, and teachers do not expect Indigenous students to achieve – they are not encouraged to pursue academic subjects, and their skills and intelligence go unrecognized. Indigenous youth receive differential treatment from teachers and peers based on misinformation, which is at the root of negative (explicit and implicit) racial biases and stereotypes about Indigenous people, such as “less intelligent”, “lazy” (Ward, 2018, p. 118), or “unruly” and “undisciplined” (Gebhard, 2018, p. 760). The latter can thus be a strong risk factor, as ongoing discrimination by adults (educators, school administrators, etc.) and differential expectations of Indigenous youth can result in academic disengagement (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 699, Ward, 2018, p. 21), reinforcing the lower expectations of educational achievement that are imposed upon them by multigenerational stereotyping, and ultimately dropping out of school altogether (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 723). In this way, expectations of (poor) school achievement are self-fulfilling prophecies.

Racial discrimination places stress on a youth’s sense of identity, fostering feelings of injustice as it contrasts with the socialization message of ‘equal treatment’, weakening any legitimacy of social institutions, which reduces social control, and might justify breaking rules or the law (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 700). These externalizing problems then reinforce poor treatment by adults in the school environment, which can contribute to poor mental health such as depression and anxiety (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 701). The experience of continual discrimination of Indigenous students by adult authority figures (e.g. school staff) “leads to feelings of devaluation and demoralization and decreases the extent to which individuals develop trusting, supportive, and prosocial relationships” (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 702-703).

Discrimination also contributes to marginalization and isolation within the school community, a denial of professional support and attention, the unfair and discriminatory practice of rules and procedures, and the denial of Indigenous experiences, rights, and history. This can foster internalized stigma, erosion of self-esteem, loneliness, and identity development issues (Gebhard, 2012, p. 8). These patterns “are associated with their increased risk for mental health problems” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80). To counter negative stereotypes, Indigenous students often feel compelled to outperform other students in order to fight off negative stereotyping that generates assumptions about the intelligence and competencies of Indigenous youth.

On an interpersonal level, anti-Indigenous racism can show up for Indigenous adolescents when they are exposed to daily micro-aggressions at school, and being undervalued and socially excluded. Research has highlighted that the prevalence of micro-aggressions in schools can affect the academic performance of Indigenous youth (Blume et al. 2019, p. 391). Thus, teacher bias and rejection from peers lead to low expectations and therefore low academic achievement, and disruptive behaviour, which can often lead to suspension, expulsion, or dropping out of school, which is illustrated by the low graduation rates of Indigenous students (Blume et al. 2019, p.396).

Research demonstrates that discrimination towards Indigenous youth is linked with response behaviours such as delinquency and violence (both as victim and aggressor). This is then compounded with disproportionate school disciplinary actions such as suspension and expulsion compared with non-Indigenous (especially White) students. Along with the integration of policing in the school system, the outcomes are such that Indigenous people being overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system, meaning that Indigenous youth are more likely to become imprisoned than graduate high school in Canada (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 695). This is also known as the school-to-prison pipeline (Gray, 2019, p. 219). In addition, “it has also been acknowledged more recently that …race, including Indigenous identity in this case, significantly influenced decisions at all stages of the judicial process…Indigenous youth received more punitive sentences than non-Indigenous youth” (Alberton et al. 2021, p. 5).


Although there are many risk factors due to historical and contemporary colonization and systemic racism that negatively impact outcomes for Indigenous youth in Canada, many Indigenous youth also demonstrate relentless resilience, healing, wellness, and achievement (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 78). Such strength and resilience is a testament to all that Indigenous people have endured during a long history of systemic discrimination, structural violence, and marginalization (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80).

Resiliency theory offers a framework to understand how Indigenous youth overcome risk factors, through a strengths-based approach. Resiliency theory highlights the positive social and individual factors that disrupt the pathway between risk factors to externalizing and internalizing problems, and ultimately, that can prevent extreme outcomes such as suicide, murder, and imprisonment (Blume et al. 2019, p.397). Resilience “can also be defined as the capacity to face challenges and to become somehow more capable despite adverse experiences” (Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 268).

“Much of the research on health and resilience in Indigenous communities recognizes that traditional forms of culture can support goals of healing, decolonisation, and resilience” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 82). Research identifies connectedness to the land as an important aspect of Indigeneity and along with connection to culture and community, as essential to balancing physical, cultural, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and cultivating a sense of belonging and relationship to the environment (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 81 & Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 268 & Blume et al. 2019, p. 399). Activities and resiliency programs for Indigenous youth that foster these connections, such as traditional ceremonies, harvesting, learning the language and other teachings with Elders and knowledge keepers “engender a sense of pride and inner well-being, a caring for the land and in some sense, a natural and mutual feeling of being nurtured and cared for by the land” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 82). Researchers also highlight the importance of connection to family and Indigenous history as supportive to healing and resilience in the face of ongoing colonization and systemic racism “that continually impact the social determinants of health” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 83).

Interventions that connect Indigenous youth to their language, culture, community, and family ancestry not only help strengthen an Indigenous worldview and collective identity, they are also proving to be most effective in fostering resilience and a reduction in externalizing problems and risk-taking behaviours (Blacklock et al. 2020, p. 323 & Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 83). Research has indicated that culturally-based interventions have increased school attendance, reduced behavioural issues, enhanced academic performance, decreased depression and suicide, decreased child apprehensions, increased school completion rates, and decreased injuries for Indigenous youth (Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 268 & 290 & Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 82-83). Another important consideration is that “…the incorporation of Indigenous perspectives on resilience into the design and implementation of such interventions will ensure that approaches are grounded in the cultural values of Indigenous communities and have greater, more meaningful involvement of the youth they intend to impact” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 84 & ).

For Indigenous youth, identity development is more complex for adolescents who experience a different culture at home than the majority culture. It can be difficult to reconcile opposing values between the two, and adolescents tend to respond in four different ways (Arnett, 2018, p. 183): assimilation (completely taking on the dominant culture), marginality (rejecting both cultures), separation (rejecting the majority culture as a response to discrimination), and biculturalism (moving back and forth between cultures, in a dual identity).

Resilience is thus complicated by the need for bicultural efficacy, or two-eyed seeing. Walking in both worlds can be challenging for Indigenous youth, and research shows that navigating these challenges is supported by being firmly rooted in their Indigenous identity, participating in cultural ceremonies, strong connections to family and community, and seeing their culture reflected and respected in the learning environment (Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 266 & 269 & Blacklock et al. 2020, p. 322). There is evidence suggesting that connection to culture and community may be even more pertinent for urban Indigenous youth, as their immersion in the dominant culture is much stronger than those living in remote Indigenous communities, which conversely makes them more adept at navigating the dominant culture than youth in rural communities (Blacklock et al. 2020, p. 323).

Thus, the role of racism and discrimination in the school climate can be seen as the greatest sources of stress that particularly affects the (mental) wellbeing of Indigenous youth, and contribute to social problems and delinquency for Indigenous youth in Canada.  As well, how ties to culture and community act as protective factors that foster resilience for Indigenous youth in the face of ongoing colonization and systemic racism. Therefore, the school climate can potentially shape either risk or resilience for Indigenous youth.

Colonization and systemic racism impact a range of Indigenous experiences and compound the systemic inequities found in the outcomes and life chances of Indigenous youth. Therefore, for any intervention aimed to prevent the risks of internalizing and externalizing problems, there is a need to understand the impact of colonization and to intervene in systemic racism in the education system. Since gender interacts with risks and resilience, it is important to consider intersectionality, as risks are far more likely for Indigenous females than for males. It is therefore recommended to keep a gender-specific lens in mind when designing and implementing interventions among Indigenous youth.

Finally, a focus on resilience also requires a critical lens asking why Indigenous youth require so much resilience in the first place, as interventions are the downstream response to many upstream problems for which Indigenous youth are not to be blamed. The economic, social, and political conditions that impact the social determinants of (mental) health (the upstream problems) need to be addressed. Governments, organizations, and institutions have been gradually implementing Indigenous people’s calls to action very recently, so there is optimism that the social change Indigenous movements have been calling for decades for is starting to happen now, and there is still much work to be done.

Therefore, any culturally based intervention intended to foster the resilience of Indigenous youth also needs to be accompanied by taking collective action to change the structural and social conditions that foster systemic racism and unparalleled inequities for Indigenous people in Canada (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 83). It is recommended that any interventions at the level of education and community aimed at improving mental health outcomes and life chances for Indigenous youth must include culturally embedded, strengths-based approaches to resilience as well as an anti-racism and decolonizing lens. This requires an understanding of systemic racism in Canada as racismpassed down through the generations from adults to children, through socialization, and adults greatly influence and shape the school experience. Children are not inherently racist; they learn this from adults such as educators and parents. Seeing how interactions with educators has such a great influence on a youth’s mental health outcomes and life chances, it is imperative for interventions intending to improve outcomes for Indigenous youth to address the racism of educators and staff working in the education system. Ultimately, to reverse the statistics so that Indigenous youth can expect to graduate and go to university or other pursuits at the same rates that they are now being imprisoned.

[1] In this paper, the definition of Indigenous youth includes all young people in adolescence (ages 10-17) and emerging adulthood (ages 18-25), with First Nations, Métis, Inuit or mixed Indigenous ancestry in Canada. While there are myriad ways in which Indigenous people self-identify (such as belonging to a specific community, Nation, or territory), for the purposes of this paper, these general ancestry identity categories are applied. The overarching term Indigenous is used while also acknowledging the diversity of cultures, languages and traditions that exist among Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. Both categories of the age group and indigeneity have been identified in the literature reviewed.


Alberton, A.M., Gorey, K.M., Angell, G.B., McCue, H.A. (2021). Violence Perpetrated Against Indigenous Peoples in Canadian Criminal Courts: Meta-Analytic Evidence of Longstanding Sentencing Inequities. Critical Social Work, 22(1), 2-22.

Arnett, J. J. (2018). Adolescence and emerging adulthood: A cultural approach (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Blacklock, A., Schmidt, L. A., Fryberg, S. A., Klassen, G. H., Querengesser, J., Stewart, J., Campbell, C. A., Flores, H., Reynolds, A., Tootoosis, C., & Burack, J. A. (2020). Identification with ancestral culture is associated with fewer internalizing problems among older Naskapi adolescents. Transcultural Psychiatry, 57(2), 321-331.

Blume, A. K., Tehee, M., & Galliher, R. V. (2019). Experiences of discrimination and prejudice among American Indian youth: Links to psychosocial functioning, 389-404.

Gebhard, A., (2018) ‘Let’s make a little drum’: limitations and contradictory effects of cultural approaches in Indigenous education. Race, Ethnicity and Education. Vol. 21(6), p. 757-777.

Gebhard, Amanda (2013) Schools, Prisons and Aboriginal Youth: Making Connections. Journal of Educational Controversy, 7(1), Article 4.

Gebhard, A. (2012). Pipeline to prison: How schools shape a future of incarceration for indigenous youth. Briar Patch, 41(5), 6.

Gray, L.A. (2019). The school-to-prison-pipeline. Educational Trauma,

Harding, L. (2019). What’s the Harm? Examining the Stereotyping of Indigenous Peoples in Health Systems. Doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University.

Harrell, S.P. (2000). Racism in mental health and education settings. In M. Constantine & D. Sue (Eds.), Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings. (pp.3-14)

Hautala, D., & Sittner, K. (2019). Longitudinal mechanisms linking perceived racial discrimination to aggressive delinquency among North American Indigenous youth. The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 56(5), 694-735.

Isaacson, M. J. (2018). Native elder and youth perspectives on mental well-being, the value of the horse, and navigating two worlds. Online Journal of Rural Nursing and Health Care, 18(2), p. 265-302.

Isbister-Bear. O., Hautala, A.R., & Sjoblom, E.(2017). Strengthening Âhkamêyimo among Indigenous youth: The social determinants of health, justice, and resilience in Canada’s north. Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing, Vol. 2(3). Te Rau Matatini.

Russell, B. S., Collins, C. M., Tomkunas, A. J., & Hutchison, M. (2021). Exploring the factor structure of the child and youth resilience measure (CYRM-12) for young children in a disadvantaged community. Children and Youth Services Review, 120, 105746.

Ward, C. (2018). Teaching about race and racism in the classroom: Managing the Indigenous elephant in the room. Doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University. Summit.

Ward, C., Morton Ninomiya, M.E., & Firestone, M. (2021) Anti-Indigenous racism training and culturally safe learning: theory, practice, and pedagogy. International journal of Indigenous health. Vol. 16(1), p. 304-313.

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The best way that we know how

I hear first peoples talking about doing things “in a good way”. I am increasingly understanding the depth of this expression. The fact is, we have known for a long time that we have not been doing things “in a good way”.  Knowing this in the core of our souls while actively denying this through our collective actions spurred by individualist materialism engrained in us for the course of industrial development, leaves us in a state of crisis. This societal crisis is exemplified by multiple and compounding crises in mental health, addictions, poverty, violence, war, refugees, homelessness and climate change. Not to mention the raving lunatic at the helm of the Titanic down south. As a society and culture, thanks to a century of “progress” driving us full speed ahead into these multiple train wrecks, eyes wide open, here we are, hitting rock bottom. This is a grand opportunity for our collective growth, to find beauty in the irony of our distorted realities such as watching our forests burn down while we BBQ meats to celebrate 150 years of colonization. We have the chance to do something absolutely beautiful to turn this all around, to do things in the best way that we know how, right now. We need to reach back in time for the solutions that our ancestors already knew and bring them into the modern age, and leave a sustainable legacy for future generations. We need to do this now. It will be radical, and people will resist, but our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be grateful that we shifted the tide before it was too late. If we are truly to embody reconciliation, or decolonization, and the principles of one planet living, we are to prioritize our First Peoples wishes first and foremost. Giving them space to be the true stewards of the lands, the culture, the social practice, as they always did before colonization. They are the leaders of tomorrow and it is time that we give them room at the helm of the ship. It is time for us to bow out and take our place in the wings, the supporting cast, the backstage crew. We will be at the ready to make their dreams a reality, but we must make their dreams the ones that count.

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Human Trafficking exhibit opened in Chinatown

“We took a taxi for a long distance… He took me into a room that had a bed, table and a chair. I asked him again: ‘Where is Edna?’ Then he said: ‘Don’t you know that I bought you from her?’ It  was as if someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart…I stayed in that room for a year. It was a brothel. I saw many teens and Liberian women working there. I worked day and night…When you are in this situation, you are traumatized. All the time they are threatening you.” – Ruth   from Sierra Leone

For some, the memory of that betrayal evokes a deep bitterness and sorrow, and others have a difficult time recovering from that betrayal. Still others overcome the betrayal, though they never forget it, in a way that makes them stronger and more resilient.

On Tuesday, November 17th, co-working space TheDock was transformed into a veritable gallery, displaying haunting, high-quality photographs of human trafficking survivors. Betrayed. Portraits of Strength, displayed at the Dock until January 5th, tell stories hailing from Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, and Mexico.

Photographer Tony Hoare tells their stories through images, text, music, and film. He interviewed and photographed hundreds of people around the world over the past five years. Tony describes his experience of the interview process:

“Everyone here that you look at… and whose story that you read… each one of them has a  common theme. That’s why I asked each one of them: “That’s really courageous of you to come forward, why did you do it?” People talked about the fact that it was one of the most significant things that they ever went through in their life and they really wanted to tell that story in the small hope that somebody else would see it, and recognize that it was something that was going on in their lives… they have a lot of courage… they are remarkable people.”


(photo: Tony Hoare)

Tony Hoare: Human Trafficking around the Globe

The human trafficking survivors and their stories hooked Hoare while he was in Bangladesh, and transformed the successful outdoor adventure sports photographer to a humanitarian advocate, canvassing the globe to collect stories of human trafficking survival and resilience. He volunteered with organizations that were working to combat human trafficking around the world.

In Bangladesh, he worked with Young Power in Social Action, which assists people who have been trafficked for their labour; he met children who had been trafficked in order to harvest their organs; he went to Sierra Leone to interview young men who had been child soldiers. He spent several months in Mexico, with Casa Alianza, an organization that helps children living on the street.

Everywhere, he encountered women, children, and men, who were survivors of sexual exploitation. For most, the stories evoke sadness for the circumstances of the survivors and the hardships they went through. Although Hoare felt compassion, more importantly, he also felt admiration when he photographed them. For Hoare, they are stories of inspiration, revealing the marvel of human resilience.

Each person he spoke to found the strength and courage within themselves in order to escape very dire circumstances. This exhibit gives you a glimpse into the lives of people who have been tricked into forfeiting their freedom. He encourages the viewer to read their stories, and ask yourself: “are similar things happening here?”


Tony Hoare (Photo: Bill Beatty)

Domestic workers and Sexual Exploitation in BC

Hoare confirms that in Canada, there is a robust human trafficking industry, primarily focused on sexual exploitation and domestic workers.  For that reason, Hoare’s photographs were commissioned by the BC Ministry of Justice, the Office to Combat Human Trafficking, because we have a significant problem with trafficking right here in British Columbia.

“Why did they ask me to show pictures from Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, and Mexico?” asks Hoare, “because the stories are really similar to the way that it happens here. People will always find ways to exploit vulnerable people. That’s the common thread. By screening some of these stories, and looking for the links to how it might happen here, there are definite parallels.”

The exhibit was first shown in collaboration with the Learning Centre in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. Hoare had invited a group of 25 community members from the downtown eastside to come in and curate the exhibit. They chose which images should be included. They were asked, “how relevant are these portraits to your lives?” The portraits themselves were deemed irrelevant, but once the stories were added, they saw how similar they were to their own experiences and lived realities.

Much like the downtown eastside experience, Dr. Kathleen Manion, professor at Royal Roads University in the School of Humanitarian Studies, invites the viewer to find ways to make a personal connection with the portraits. Manion is an advocate of changing the narrative, away from the tragedy and victimhood that we often see in the mainstream media, towards one of resilience and survival found in Hoare’s portraits. Rather than a one-dimensional criminal activity, seeing trafficking survivors in a broader context allows the viewer to make the connection to their own lives.


Kathleen Manion (Photo: Bill Beatty)

International Instruments

Kathleen Manion’s academic studies have focused on the issue of human trafficking on the global scale, and in particular, its impact on children. It is estimated that there are between 800,000 and 1.2 million children trafficked worldwide each year. There are a number of international instruments designed to suppress the global trafficking of people, which Manion describes as “a traumatic, exploitative practice”.

The Palermo Protocol was ratified in 2000, by a broad coalition of countries, to define trafficking as “having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation.” It was agreed that trafficking occurs without the consent of the individual.  Broader agreements were ratified to protect children under 18.

Manion reminds us that the international policies must not mask the personal stories of the people in these portraits, which connect us to their humanity:

“They are stories of people who have gone through terrible situations, and have been betrayed by the people that they cared about, they have been betrayed by the systems that should be    there to support them, at the local, national, and international levels.”

She asks the viewer to take some time to think about the stories and how they relate to you, and how does that create a connection between all of us, and what might we be able to change in order to see a different world?



Those who braved the storm on November 17th to attend the opening at theDock were not only rewarded with a rich discussion on human trafficking led by Tony Hoare, and Kathleen Manion,  but also with delectable pastries by La Tana, a local, organic Italian bakery housed at the entrance to Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown, just downstairs from theDock.

This exhibition is part of an ongoing project. Tony Hoare is interested in gathering more stories from different countries, especially stories within Canada. His challenge is to find survivors of human trafficking willing to share their stories. They can contact Tony Hoare confidentially at


About Tony Hoare: Over the last two years, through his work as a humanitarian photographer, Hoare has gathered stories of people who have been victims of trafficking and who, with strength and courage, have gone on to create better lives for themselves. Hoare works with locally grown organizations that support people victimized by others.  The stories are raw and heartfelt.  The stories are from Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Mexico.  Hoare’s project is ongoing with future stories that will come from Europe, the Philippines and Canada.  For the Canadian stories, Hoare is seeking volunteers who have experienced human trafficking.   Your story can be told in your name or using a pseudonym to remain anonymous. If you have been betrayed, Tony would like to hear from you. He can be reached at

theDock-Centre for Social Impact  is a coworking space for community builders, social entrepreneurs, creatives and engaged people. The coworking space is curated to stimulate informal collaboration, hosting events and making connections, with the aim of increasing the impact of its members through more efficient connections. The growing list of members shows the diversity of individuals and organisations who moor and mingle at the Dock.

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Child Protection Crisis in Central America

Within the past eight months, over 52,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived at the Mexican-U.S. border seeking refuge in the United States, from Latin America’s “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This is known as the Surge, as numbers have increased exponentially since 2011, overwhelming U.S. immigration, and leaving thousands of children in holding in makeshift detention centres. These increasingly high numbers show no signs of waning, and projections of new arrivals continue to rise. Those lobbying for stricter immigration policies are finding justifications for their arguments, while human rights activists are calling it a humanitarian crisis – pleading for the youngsters to be admitted to the U.S. as refugees under the non-refoulement policy (a binding policy prohibiting the return of a refugee to persecution, obliging the State to grant refugee status).

Immigration policy aside, what is happening in the countries of origin that is making these children want to leave house and home and everything they’ve ever known behind and take a dangerous journey northwards to an unknown destiny?

If a house is burning, people will jump out the window,” says Michelle Brané,       director at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Governments and NGOs in the region have identified the need for research on the reasons for this mass exodus and seek better ways to ensure the protection, wellbeing, and safety of these displaced children. Some of the reasons have been recorded in several studies undertaken at the U.S. Border.

These studies show that violence is the most cited cause for those fleeing Central America. In the past five years, a weak State has allowed strong international drug cartels and other organized crime (weapons trafficking, human trafficking) to flourish. Reports from the Northern Triangle show that murder rates are skyrocketing, with estimates of civilian casualty rates far surpassing those at the height of the Iraq war, with El Salvador being the most violent of the three, and where the majority of the migrants are from (UNHCR). This impacts the everyday lives of Central American children.

Increasingly, more residential neighbourhoods and schools are targeted by street gangs to force children into recruitment and to terrorize their families. Police forces in El Salvador and Honduras are reported to deal with the problem with yet more violence, “cleansing” neighbourhoods of gang members, often the same youths that were forcibly recruited in the first place. In Guatemala, reports show that the police is under the influence of organized crime. Corruption and failure of governance are named as reasons for their inability to control the gangs. These same gangs were formed by those pushed out of Colombia due to the War on Drugs, and from the streets of Los Angeles in the 1990s, deported from the USA due to their illegal status and criminal activities. They often turned to these activities as a last resort, considering they had no status in the U.S., feared the police, and only had their own networks to turn to for survival. Now they have a strong, powerful international trafficking network, and are terrorizing more and more children and families of Central America daily, to gain ground as drug lords, and selling the drugs back to the United States. An old immigration problem becomes a new immigration problem, and the demand for illicit drugs is on the rise. Drugs these children are forced to sell, traffic, smuggle and take themselves, for they otherwise risk losing their lives or their loved ones.

En masse, Central American children are fleeing to the Promised Land, some to reunite with relatives in the United States; some, whose families have sent them on the treacherous journey alone, see it as the only way to keep them safe. The cost alone is a severe burden on the families, with “coyotes” charging upwards of $5,000 to bring a child to the U.S. Not to mention the threat of the gangs now befalls the family, as the child refused recruitment and chose to flee instead. Reports indicate that the coyotes themselves are also abusive:

While not all children described mistreatment by guides, many of those who did revealed being locked in rat-infested warehouses sometimes for days on end. Some reported physical abuse by the guides. One described being beaten with a 2 x 4 wooden beam. Another child told of how women and girls were kept in a separate room and could be heard screaming while being raped. Children further described the guides’ failure to provide consistent access to food and water, especially in the desert…Once children got to the desert bordering the U.S., many were abandoned by guides and left without food or water. Some wandered for days until Border Patrol found them. Others describe making it to the Rio Grande River and watching others drown as they struggled against the current. Source

Reports show that some of these coyotes are actually engaged in child trafficking: promising families that their children will have the opportunity for better lives in the U.S. while they are really smuggling these children to another country (the U.S. or other Latin American countries) to force them into drug trafficking, child labour, and sex trafficking (TIP). Traffickers play a large and profitable role in moving many children across the globe (CWLA).

Additionally, the journey itself proves to expose them to more of the same violence from whence they came: the cartels in Mexico are known for extortion, violence, rape, kidnapping and trafficking the children during the journey. They kidnap the migrants and hold them for ransom, forcing them to work for the cartel. If they make it to the U.S. border, the migrants are detained as criminals, and continue to be faced with an uncertain future: Will the U.S. accept them as refugees or send them back home? Needless to say, there is great risk involved in the migration of unaccompanied minors from Central America to the United States, yet, staying at home apparently offers even less hope.

To capture the reasons for this hopelessness, UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) interviewed over 400 unaccompanied minors waiting for U.S. immigration to decide their fates. They published a report named Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children from EL Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and the Need for International Protection. Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) published the report The Time is Now: Understanding and Addressing the Protection of Immigrant Children Who Come Alone to the United States based on interviews with 126 children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. A third report, Forced From Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America, by the Women’s Refugee Commission, details the results of interviews with 150 children, officials from Homeland Security, and Immigration at the U.S. – Mexican border.

The results of these reports are similar. Although the responses from the interviews are complex, they show a general trend that a dramatic rise in violence in the everyday lives of these children spurred on their desire to escape their homes, lives, families, friends, and schools. The UNHCR reports states: “no less than 58% of the 404 children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection” from violence by organized crime as well as violence at home. The report’s results show that a majority must qualify for refugee status:


El Salvador: 72%; Guatemala: 38%; Honduras: 57%; Mexico: 64%

Total: 58%

  • Between Ages 12-17
  • Entered the U.S. during or after October 2011
  • Held at some point in U.S. federal  custody

These youngsters shared stories of fleeing increasing domestic violence, abuse, neglect, maltreatment, and abandonment by their families, compounded by dire poverty and the increasing threats, intimidation, extortion, armed conflict, kidnapping and human trafficking, gang violence, brutal forced recruitment, rape, and persecution by organized criminal gangs. In El Salvador, gangs are reputed to murder those who cannot pay la renta. Those children who have lost a caregiver by disappearance, death, or separation are the most vulnerable to increased poverty, abuse, neglect, sexual violence, exploitation, and death. Children do not tend to report abuse to the authorities because they do not believe that they will protect them (KIND). No space is safe for them, even the schools are used as gang recruitment centres. Just like other migrants, these children and families do not want to flee their homes, or their countries, if they can avoid it. Just as in Syria or Colombia, they will displace internally before leaving their countries to journey to an unknown fate. A gender dimension reveals girls are most at risk:

“…many of the displaced girls interviewed reported the fear of rape and gender-based violence as major motivating factors. They described how gangs and drug traffickers in Central America are increasingly recruiting girls to smuggle and sell drugs in their home countries, using gang rape as a means of forcing them into compliance. Gangs also use the threat of rape as a tactic to gain money through extortion and kidnapping. If a girl is impregnated, interviewees explained, the gang member responsible will leave her to raise her baby alone, then come back when the child is old enough to be recruited into the gang. Just as gangs are targeting younger boys for recruitment and violent attacks, they are targeting younger girls, some as young as nine years old, for rape and sexual assault” (UNHCR).

The increase in numbers of unaccompanied minors fleeing the Northern Triangle and entering the U.S. indicates a crisis. The background to this crisis includes the civil wars of the 1980s, as this established an increased circulation of firearms and normalized violence in society. In times of armed conflict, children are the most vulnerable to violence and abuse in and outside of the home. The ensuing perpetual and extreme poverty are additional pressures that have influenced an increase in domestic and societal violence, impacting the daily lives of Central American children even further.

The UNHCR report places an emphasis on recommendations concerning the international protection and liberties of displaced children in the context of immigration policies, and only briefly suggests improvements on the home front:

Address Root Causes: Undertake measures both regionally and nationally to address the root causes of flight of these displaced children, in an effort to reduce – if not eliminate – the factors that lead to their forced displacement. Engage the Commission on Security for Central America of the Central American Integration System to address the issues of children displaced due to violence and insecurity in further support of State efforts concerning these issues”(UNHCR).

KIND has a stronger recommendation:

Such prevalent violence against children calls for a strong national child protection response, but in many countries in the region, this is lacking due to limited resources” (KIND).


What are possible solutions to help protect these children from violence in their home countries?

What strategies can be undertaken to prevent them from being recruited by the gangs?

How can we improve their situations so that they do not have to flee, as in all reality, it is only the lucky few that actually have the chance to flee.

Watch a Video about the crisis in Central America.

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Observations from Punjab, India

‘…the role of social sensitivity of the philanthropic and the social organisations committed to humanitarian values is very crucial’ (Iyer and Manick 2000:90).

Widows in Rural Punjab

After several months of interviews in rural Punjab concerning farmers who committed suicide as a result of the economic crisis in agriculture, the widows appear to be left in the weakest position in society. It all begins with the arranged marriage: the young bride must leave her natal village to live in her husband’s village. She rarely goes to her natal village to visit her own family. She has no friends in her new village, which leaves her completely isolated after her husband’s death. On top of that, often women do not leave the house, as for her to be alone in public is seen as shameful. After marriage, women are expected to be housewives: to do all the household chores, take care of the children and the husband.  In addition, receiving an education higher than the tenth class is seen as shameful, as the woman’s place is in the home. Unmarried girls are not allowed to leave their village to receive higher education or skilled training, which leaves them little choice but to become either a housewife or a labourer.  These ‘social facts’ or cultural expectations leave widows in an impossible predicament.  After her husband has committed suicide, the widow’s fate seems to take one of six turns:

1)      She returns to her natal village, leaving her children behind with her in-laws. This is, if you ask any mother, a heart-wrenching experience.

2)      Her family arranges a new husband for her. She barely had time to grieve, yet now her in-laws will be held accountable for her late husband’s debts, although she receives no rights to the inheritance despite the high price of dowry that her family had paid.

3)      She (often against her will) remarries the brother of deceased, who is left with the debts of the first brother, and often proceeds to commit suicide as well.

4)      She remains with the in-laws (sometimes acting as their slave, doing all the housework: cooking, cleaning, washing, feeding and milking the buffalo etc).

5)      She is left on her own, with the debts and the children to take care of.

6)      She commits suicide.

Emotionally, widows are relentlessly broken. Heartbroken from her husband’s death, the widow sees daily reminders of him in the eyes of their children.  Socially, she must wear the stigma of her husband’s suicide.  Besides the daily struggle to make ends meet, she is burdened by the debts he left her, and receives pressure from the arhtiya or bank to make payments, multiplying the public shame of being indebted, and elevating her financial worries.[1] Sometimes she had been physically abused by her late husband, as he had turned to alcohol and/or drug abuse as an escape from debts, which contributed to the psychosis in which he took his own life.  From this experience, her soul is left as battered and bruised as her body, causing lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Financially, she is often dependent on either in-laws, siblings or the State.  The widow must sell all of her personal property (ie. Jewellery, which are often heirlooms passed on for generations in the family) in order to make loan repayments. If this is impossible or insufficient, she must sometimes resort to becoming a labourer even though this may be a lower caste, where she is paid slave wages and is physically and sexually abused by employers and other labourers.

The widow is often uneducated, illiterate, allowing for little or no political leverage or social power due to her ignorance of her civil rights, or of the many official rules and regulations surrounding these rights. Commonly, despite applying several times, she has not received the widow’s pension that she is entitled to from the government. The eligibility criteria are quite inconsequential and restrictive. For example, the widow must not have more than two acres of land in her title, her age must be under thirty-five, but there is no clause considering the amount of her debts, or if she is incapable of working after age thirty-five. She will only receive pensions for two dependents (whereby boys are favoured), despite the fact that most rural owmen have more children to support. The result is that her children must stop attending school and start earning.  Apparently, politics play a role, since it depends on her voting behaviour or caste whether the sarpanch will favour her and arrange her pensions or not.

Contrary to the assumptions often made by the men in her surroundings, the widows I spoke with would prefer to be independent, as they do not like to rely on others. Like any mother, they want to give her children a good future, for example, by giving them an education.  To me, these wishes do not seem unreasonable, yet to the widows I spoke with, they often seem like far-fetched and unattainable dreams.

[1] ‘The constant pressures by lending agencies to repay the loan emerged as an important precipitant social factor for committing suicide by the deceased. The pressures were so intense, that apart from the suicide victims, the family members also felt humiliated’ (Iyer and Manick 2000: 43).


Agarwal, Bina

1998        Widows versus daughters or widows as daughters? Propety, land, and economic security in rural India. Modern Asian studies vol:32 iss:1.

Iyer, Gopal and Manick, Mehar Singh

2000        Indebtedness, Impoverishment and Suicides in Rural Punjab. Delhi: Indian Publishers Distributors.

Sehgal, Rashme

2005    Whole Villages up For Sale in Punjab. Chandigarh: The Tribune.

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