The Canadian indigenous community fighting sex trafficking

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Story highlights

  • In Canada, indigenous children are targeted by sex traffickers
  • Indigenous community in northern Manitoba has a program to protect its children
  • "What gives us hope is that we're talking about it," says Chief Ron Evans.

Winnipeg, Canada (CNN)Samantha Folster and Gilbert Fredette walk into the high school classroom and quickly launch into an uncomfortable conversation.

"Good morning everyone," Folster begins. "We're here to do a presentation with you today on sexual exploitation."
The room quiets, the teenagers sit at attention, all eyes on Folster and Fredette. It's a tough subject for 10th and 11th graders, but many of them have heard it before.
    And Fredette tells CNN, they need to hear it again, and again, and again.
    "If we're not walking the walk and talking the talk for the betterment of our community," he says, "then it's meaningless."
    Their community is Norway House Cree Nation, a small indigenous reserve located in northern Manitoba, Canada, home to about 6,000 people. Folster and Fredette serve on the Chief's Council.
    Together, they are determined to prevent children in their community from falling prey to sex traffickers who have been targeting their kids for years.

    Easy prey

    Throughout Canada, indigenous children are easy prey. Many come from First Nation tribes in the north, some communities so remote they are accessible only by air. Isolated and vulnerable, some families choose to leave home in search of better schools, better jobs and greater opportunity in Canada's bigger cities.
    According to Diane Redsky, an anti-trafficking activist who advocates for indigenous women and children in Canada, the children don't stand a chance in the big city.
    "There is a specific shopping mall in Winnipeg where traffickers just hang out and wait," she says. "Traffickers are looking for girls that come in with a certain brand of shoes and a certain brand of jeans because in their communities, there's only one store ... and they only sell certain brands, and so right away a trafficker will know [that she is indigenous]".
    Once identified, the traffickers then lure the girls in. Redsky says it's very subtle. "They are not posing as pimps anymore," she says. "They're posing as boyfriends."
    This scenario plays out across all of Canada's big cities. As a result, indigenous children are greatly overrepresented among victims. There are approximately 1.5 million people in Canada who identify as indigenous. That's only 4% of the Canadian population, yet indigenous people make up more than 50% of all human trafficking victims in the country.
    Norway House is trying to change that by bringing what was once a taboo subject to the forefront.
    Folster says: "I don't think it's ever been talked about that way. It's more like, let's not talk about it, let's just leave it under the rug and let it stay there. And it's the fear of speaking about it and the shame that comes with it and the guilt of feeling that maybe this way my fault.
    "So we need to change the perception of how people think and feel about sexual exploitation in our communities."

    Culture and heritage

    Norway House is the first indigenous community in northern Manitoba to bring an anti-trafficking program into school. It is an achievement this close, tight-knit community is proud of. As hundreds gathered on an uncharacteristically warm evening in May to listen to music and enjoy a fish fry, the chief of this First Nation community thanked local fishermen for catching the fish, offered a prayer, and then invited Folster to the stage to speak about steps the leadership is taking to prevent sex trafficking in the community.
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    Later, speaking in his small office at the council's headquarters, Chief Ron Evans kept an optimistic tone.
    "What gives me hope is that we're talking about it," he says. "There's more people aware of it, we got leadership that are aware of it, we have plans in place that are only beginning to be implemented."
    Folster says she sees change happening. Mothers and grandmothers in the community are coming to talk to her about their children. That's a good sign, she says, that people are talking about it. It means the program is working.
    "When the situation hits home it's even harder for you when it's family," Folster says. "It's heartbreaking, but it makes you want to strive even stronger to make change, for your grandchildren."
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    Folster also stresses the importance of culture and heritage. She says recent generations of First Nations people are unfamiliar with their native traditions, the result of decades of government-sponsored assimilation through residential schools.
    We visit with Folster at her home as she and three other women participate in a smudging ceremony, a sacred ritual that uses smoke from sage and other herbs believed to cleanse and purify the body and soul. Sitting on a large wooden deck in Folster's backyard, with the sun setting behind them, the women pray for healing. Reconnecting with those roots, Folster says, is key to ending a seemingly never-ending cycle of abuse.
    "When I ran to be a leader, one of the things that I had spoken about was I just want wellness in our community. It's called 'minoyawin,' wellness," she says. "That was my goal and it'll continue to be my goal and that's why I sit here today and do this awareness on sexual exploitation."