Activism changed Cherry Kingsley’s life for the better and now she wants other aboriginal youth like her to see how it can change their lives, too.

Kingsley, 30, is a tireless advocate for the rights of children and youth who are exploited daily by Canada’s sex trade. For those youth, Kingsley says, the sex trade isn’t a lifestyle choice—it’s child abuse.

And Kingsley should know because she was forced into street prostitution when she was 14 by a couple who befriended the lonely girl, then a legal ward of Alberta’s youth protection services.

Kingsley, a member of the Shushwap Nation of Alkali Lake, B.C., was one of many aboriginal youth who, in some Canadian communities, make up more than 90 per cent of the visible sex trade in areas where the total aboriginal population is less than 10 per cent. According to a 1996 report by the Manitoba Youth and Child Secretariat, roughly more than 2000 aboriginal youth are exploited commercially by the sex trade in Manitoba alone.

It’s a gray, drizzly October Sunday in Montreal, where Kingsley has traveled from her home in Toronto to lead a workshop at an aboriginal wellness gathering hosted by the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. The workshop was part of Kingsley’s ongoing work with Save the Children Canada.

Earlier this year, with the assistance of Save the Children and a $100,000 grant from the federal government’s Secretary of State for Children and Youth, Kingsley started the National Aboriginal Consultation Project. For six months, Kingsley traveled to 22 communities across Canada and met with aboriginal youth aged 11 to 24 who’d been commercially exploited by the sex trade. The final report entitled Sacred Lives was released yesterday in Ottawa.

Its release marks yet another achievement for Kingsley who in her 12 years of advocacy work has: helped found three youth-in-care networks in the early 1990s, two at the provincial level in Alberta and B.C., respectively, and one at the national level; organized the first international summit for sexually exploited youth in 1998, and recently won a Governor General’s award for her work.

As twilight falls in Montreal, and the gathering is winding down in the conference rooms of the downtown hotel where it was held, Kingsley is curled up in her hotel room, chain smoking cigarettes and preparing to tell her story once again.

“I was born in Hamilton, Ont., but I grew up most of the time until I was 14 in Calgary.

“I grew up in a really violent and abusive home—there was a lot of neglect and alcoholism, fighting.

“My sister was sexually abused from the time she was very young and my step-dad used to beat me up all the time, he locked me in closets sometimes for like 16 hours at a time . .. [or he’d lock] me down in the basement with no food or water or blankets or lights on,” Kingsley says in a manner like many other people who’ve been through the youth protection system—chronologically and without much emotion. It’s a necessary skill that’s acquired when one must repeatedly tell of horrific events to social workers and mental health specialists.

Nevertheless, she continues telling her story in her raspy voice. Occasionally, a slight expression of pain flickers across her pretty, delicate features as she talks of seeking help from neighbors, the police and her teachers, all of whom ignored her pleas and left Kingsley feeling more alone and isolated. By the time she was 10, Kingsley learned not to talk about it with outside authorities because it only brought on more beatings and abuse from her mother and stepfather.

Instead, she and her sister ran away together.

“That’s when I was put into care because we’d walked down these railroad tracks for a couple of days and the RCMP found us.

“We still had bruises and welts from the backs of our necks to the backs of our knees and at that point it had already been three days, so they apprehended us.”

Kingsley was ward of the state for eight years, during which she had 20 different placements in foster homes, and shelters. The experience, she recalls, was shameful and embarrassing.

“I knew I was native, but I didn’t know what that meant, so [I just felt] really disconnected from everything and really embarrassed and ashamed that everybody at school knew I was a welfare kid or the neighborhood knew ‘that’s the group home or the foster home and those are the welfare kids or those are the troubled kids or the bad kids.’

“I hated my life.”

Her lack of self-esteem made her an ideal target for a young couple who at first, it seemed to Kingsley, cared about her sincerely and wanted to help her get out of a situation she found intolerable. She was 13 when she met them, and a year later, the couple asked her if she wanted to move to Vancouver with them. They promised her that she could start her life over, go to school, or do whatever she wanted to do. Kingsley jumped at the chance, yet within hours of arriving in Vancouver from Calgary, she knew she’d been lied to.

The couple forced her to work as a prostitute on the streets of Vancouver and turn all of her earnings over to them. Some days, Kingsley remembers, she worked 18-hour shifts during which she’d have eight to 10 clients, yet not have even enough money in her pocket to buy a cup of coffee. And there were beatings, too, at the hands of the man who’d brought her to Vancouver, her clients, and relentless harassment from strangers who saw Kingsley as nothing more than a pathetic streetwalker.

Kingsley sought solace in drugs, and was a cocaine and heroin addict by age 15. However, something in her remained strong and when sne was 18 and working in Calgary, a social worker invited her to a meeting where Kingsley could meet other youth in protective custody. That meeting inspired her and laid the groundwork for a series of self-help networks for youth living in care.

But Kingsley was still active in her addiction and stayed in the sex trade until she was 22 to pay for her drugs. Kingsley can’t pinpoint the exact time she knew she had to leave the sex trade or die as a result of it. However, she says it all fell together after she’d been violently raped by a baa date who held a gun to her head, and her drug use had caused three heart attacks. It was around that time, Kingsley recalls, that she realized she wanted to live and help others like her get out the abusive cycle.

Kingsley’s good friend and fellow activist Senator Landon

Pearson marvels at Kingsley’s resilience. The two women first met in 1994 at a United Nation’s conference held in Victoria, and began working together in 1996.

“She’s a great example of somebody who triumphed in spite of hardship,” Pearson says, “What force preserved her when she could have easily closed up? It’s probably her capacity to reach out.”

It’s that capacity which helps Kingsley in her work today. She hopes her report Sacred Lives will bring aboriginal youth together and help them get involved in finding solutions for their common problems. Rather than have a group of specialists and experts dictate what should be done, Kingsley’s report recommends aboriginal youth meet with aboriginal organizations, service agencies and government departments at a series of national and regional round tables. From there, the youth and their respective communities can design, implement and monitor programs developed by the youth to address their needs. Ultimately, Kingsley predicts, the round tables and the various youth-driven programs will build a national youth network from which a national awareness campaign can be run.

Kingsley believes her work is a form of social justice, a theme inspired by a 17-year-old girl she met in Labrador while compiling information for her report earlier this year.

“[She] had been assaulted and not only were the police and the courts hostile, but the community was hostile, too.

“This is a community that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. She wrote a poem that said, ‘Do I die or try to live long enough to see justice?’

“It just really broke my heart that a child would ask that and all the while the community is wringing their hands saying ‘we don’t understand why there’s such a nigh suicide rate,’ and there she is saying it so clearly, so articulately, and so bravely.

“The thing is even if she decides to live, do you really believe she’s going to see justice? What is justice? The papers and the right-wing politicians would have us believe that justice is punishment… [but] maybe justice is that children can eat, and sleep somewhere, and have the basic necessities of life [like] caring and protection.

“If our children ask us if they should die or live Icing enough to see justice, that is not a reflection of that child, it’s a reflection of us because we, as communities, are letting our children be bought and sold for sex.”