The Order of Canada is one of the country’s highest civilian honours, and for honouree Diane Sowden, it comes after a lot of hard work, tough battles and sleepless nights.
“It just makes me feel everything we did was worthwhile and that it will continue,” she told The Current‘s guest host Paul Hunter.
Sowden is one of 135 Canadians who were recognized with the Order of Canada on Thursday. She’s been honoured for her role in educating thousands of people about child sexual exploitation.
“It actually overwhelms me and makes me so happy that this fight against sexual exploitation is actually being nationally recognized,” she said.
For more than two decades, Sowden’s Children of the Street Society has worked to prevent kids from being sexually exploited and trafficked.
Sowden founded the non-profit in 1995 after her then 13-year-old daughter was sexually exploited and trafficked in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
Sowden spoke to Hunter about the work her non-profit has done and some of the changes they’ve helped make. Here’s part of their conversation.
You became a youth advocate through your own experience with your daughter, Katie. What happened to Katie when she was 13?
Well, we lived in a small community in [British Columbia] and she was a regular 13-year-old going to school and she connected with the wrong person in town. He had a lot of skills to manipulate her and unfortunately, he targeted her and we ended up losing her to the streets of Vancouver for several years.
I was, as a parent, very shocked and surprised that there was very little as a parent we could do to intervene and very little the authorities, police child protection, could do.
I could see so many barriers through the Criminal Code and through child protection, that we could work with politicians and with the community to have those things change.-Diane Sowden
That’s where my passion came from, so that we could change that so it wouldn’t happen to other young people and other families like ours.
It would have been easy to do nothing … to just move on, deal with your own circumstance and be done with it. What pushed you to do what you did, to create a non-profit that I’m going to guess changed your life?
I guess the thing that drove me is that when I did go public, so many other families reached out to me. So I realized we weren’t the only people. This wasn’t an isolated situation, and there was a lot of silent voices out there.
I was willing and able to be the voice for a lot of parents that, for whatever reason, couldn’t do that.
I could see so many barriers through the Criminal Code and through child protection, that we could work with politicians and with the community to have those things change.
And as things started slowly changing, that gives you even more drive and led us to working on different issues over 25 years.
So let’s unpack that a little bit because you were in the House of Commons, you testified back in 2000 before the Federal Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. What were you pushing for? What were you advocating for on a federal level?
The way the system was set up at that time is rather than getting treatment or support for a youth, they ended up in the criminal justice system.
I had officers in our community tell me, “Well, if she gets caught doing a crime, maybe we can charge her, then we can hold her and do something.” And to me, that just didn’t make sense, to criminalize someone that needed social programmes and support.
That was one of the main things I was talking about in Ottawa: how do we give support to families without criminalizing their children?
WATCH: Canada is a major target for human traffickers
At the same time, I was fighting to raise the legal age of sexual consent. So when my daughter was 13, she got on the street and then at 14, she was pregnant. Naive as I was, I thought, “OK, she’s pregnant. She’s with an older fellow. That statutory rape, someone’s going to do something now.” And I found out there was no such thing here.
At that point, the legal age of sexual consent in Canada at that point was 14, and she could consent to having sex even through manipulation to any age adult. And I was absolutely appalled at that. And so I started fighting to have the legal age of sexual consent raised, which took 14 years, but … [in] 2008 they changed it to the age of 16.
Those are the things that were barriers for us as a family that I could see could make it easier for parents to support their children and for the child protection to be able to step in and keep children safe.
I’m going to guess that is the change you are most proud of?
It’s one of the ones … Also, as far as the definition of what human trafficking is, has changed over time. When my daughter was … being exploited, she wasn’t actually under the Criminal Code to consider human trafficking.
We weren’t able to protect our own children that were being exploited in our own communities, but we could protect someone that was being brought across from another country.-Sowden
One of the big barriers they had is that she hadn’t crossed the border … When a young [11-year-old] girl came up from Portland, Oregon, police, social workers were involved. At the same time, my daughter was down on the same street and no one can intervene, the barrier was that she hadn’t been taken across the border.
We weren’t able to protect our own children that were being exploited in our own communities, but we could protect someone that was being brought across from another country.
That’s another thing that I think is a huge change to the Criminal Code.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
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If you believe you or children you know are being neglected, abused or sexually exploited, see a list of province and territory-specific child welfare resources here. If you or the person you are reporting are in immediate danger, call 911.