Funding barriers hurt Edmonton women escaping addiction, sex trade, warn advocates

Advocates say bureaucratic roadblocks faced by young Indigenous women in Edmonton attempting to escape sexual exploitation and homelessness can be harmful and even "deadly."

'I do not want to sexualize my body,' says former addict denied income support to complete high school

Sarah, 19, was denied government funding to return to high school after overcoming addiction and homelessness. (CBC/David Bajer)

Sarah clawed her way back from sexual violence, addiction and homelessness to return to high school full-time in Edmonton.

But she can't access income support, leaving her with three options: remain financially dependent on her live-in boyfriend, drop out of school with a Grade 10 education to go back to work, or find a way to make a quick buck.       

"I do not want to sexualize my body to get money," said Sarah, 19, an Indigenous woman whose real name and school are not being identified for her safety. "But how are women supposed to make money if the government won't help them out?"

Her case is one example of the bureaucratic roadblocks faced by young women attempting to escape sexual exploitation, abusive relationships or life on the streets, advocates say.

They say Sarah has tried to access funding since November — lining up at one department only to be sent to another one and another dead end.

But even after exchanging emails with officials in the Alberta department of Community and Social Services and meeting with Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean, Sarah's situation hasn't changed.

Some of them end up on trick pads on mattresses with johns, and some of them end up on morgue tables.- Mark Cherrington, Edmonton Coalition for Human Rights and Justice

"Without this young person's resilience, we would have lost her to the streets a long time ago," said Mark Cherrington, a volunteer with the Edmonton Coalition for Human Rights and Justice, a group advocating on behalf of Sarah and others.

"What I'm seeing with vulnerable women, and particularly vulnerable Indigenous women, are high barriers in funding streams for the most rudimentary, simple sort of requests."

Cherrington warns the barriers can be harmful, even "deadly."

"And where we've lost these women is back onto the streets, back into a life of sexual exploitation, back to a life of victimization, back to a life of ignorance because they can't go to school," Cherrington said.

"And some of them end up on trick pads on mattresses with johns, and some of them end up on morgue tables. I mean, that's the reality."

'I was practically in tears'

Marie, 33, not her real name, became an escort when she was Sarah's age. She left the massage parlour industry before the birth of her son, a bright-eyed two-year-old who requires specialized medical care.

She now works cleaning and reception jobs, while taking courses to pursue her dream of running her own business as a licensed esthetician.

Marie is determined not to return to the sex trade like those she knows who couldn't make enough money to look after their children. But even as an Indigenous woman, she hasn't been able to access specialized funding.

Three times she has arranged a sitter and waited hours at Alberta Works before finally managing to see someone. Each appointment brings new requirements, like collecting job postings or submitting a letter of interest from an employer.

"Every time I do all the work, I get bombarded with another task to do," Marie said.

Every time I do all the work, I get bombarded with another task to do.- Marie, former escort

Part of the problem, Marie said, is that most of the course funding is for work in the oil industry. She said a female government worker suggested she pursue a job in administration.

"She said: 'I know you're only here for money. Maybe you should try that. I'm like, 'How could you tell me that? I'm here to advance my career in esthetics, that's what I want to do,' " Marie recalled.

"After I left, I was practically in tears."

Last year, some Edmonton business owners raised concerns about  "irrational barriers" out-of-work immigrants faced at Alberta Works, including that same requirement of securing a job prior to training.

'Constipated bureaucracy'

"It's these kind of barriers that make me think that this government may recognize that we have vulnerable people, but we still have a very constipated bureaucracy," Cherrington said.

He urged officials to recognize the efforts being made by women and to be more flexible when they don't meet criteria —and to apply some "common sense."

Mark Cherrington says bureaucratic barriers for vulnerable women can be harmful, or even deadly.

In Sarah's case, she said she tried but couldn't handle both work and school. Initially, she was told she didn't qualify for social services because her live-in boyfriend, who attends the same alternative school, already receives financial assistance.

Sarah tried to access another type of financial support known as learners' benefits from Alberta Education. But inquiries made by CBC News last week revealed the money can't be accessed by students in Sarah's specialized program.

Her support workers say in their eight-month pursuit of funding, it's something they were never told.

'Sexism is what it is'

Sitting in a park in her Alberta Avenue neighbourhood, Sarah describes her boyfriend as her best friend, the person who helped her get sober and one of her only emotional supports after leaving behind her old lifestyle. But living off his monthly income of $1,000 is stressful. After bills and rent, that leaves them with $300 for groceries, recreation and basic needs.

"I'm depending on him to basically feed me, clothe me, make sure I have what I need as a woman," said Sarah, who dreads having to ask for money for feminine products when she gets her period. "It's probably the biggest argument we have. Because it's stressing him out, it's stressing me out. And I feel dependent on him. And I don't want to feel that."

Sarah recalled earlier days when "I wanted to rip myself out of my skin because I just didn't feel comfortable in it anymore." Now, she's confident she can help young people as a future addictions counsellor, but also by speaking out for women in situations similar to hers.

"Sexism is what it is," said Sarah. "Because this is no longer the 1800s where the women rely on the men to support them. This is 2018."

Minister for the Status of Women and Service Alberta Stephanie McLean met with Sarah in April. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Alberta's NDP government has prioritized gender equality. Premier Rachel Notley appointed a record number of women to cabinet, including McLean, the first minister devoted to the status of women. The latest budget incorporated gender-based analysis.

McLean, Community and Social Services Minister Irfan Sabir and Education Minister David Eggen declined interviews. A statement was emailed from McLean's office, citing various measures taken to strengthen supports and improve delivery of service for women facing sexual exploitation and violence.

Among the initiatives listed, the email noted the province has provided $8.1 million to the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services and $7 million to community organizations that address issues such as sexual exploitation and violence. 



Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca