By Chevi Rabbit, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News
It takes a strong person to use their life experiences and education to pursue justice for themselves and others. Edmonton has been able to produce and cultivate passionate human rights and social justice advocates.
April Eve Wiberg is among the top advocates in Alberta and was featured in 2017 as Global Edmonton Woman of Vision. She has overcome poverty, abuse, addiction, racism, homelessness, and sexual exploitation.
“I believe that one cannot heal without forgiveness — forgiveness of one’s self and forgiveness of others,” said Wiberg, Stolen Sisters and Brothers Awareness Movement builder and founder (SSBAM).
In an exclusive interview with ANNews Reporter Chevi Rabbit, she shares her powerful story on human trafficking and offers advice for other women and transgender women.
“I am a mother of two and member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Treaty 8. I am an Indigenous survivor of commercialized sexual exploitation,” said Wiberg.
“I am also a Missing or Murdered and Exploited Indigenous Peoples (MMEIP) family member.”
At 17, she became homeless in Edmonton. At that time, she reached out to local social service agencies for help but sadly was turned away.
“I was told I was old enough to fend for myself. I was scared and incredibly vulnerable,” said Wiberg. “Shortly after this, I was targeted, groomed, and then later sexually exploited.”
Being sexually exploited shattered her self-worth. She was human trafficked across borders and very far away from her family, her Northern Cree community and in her own words “my true potential.”
“I am blessed to be alive today to tell my story,” said Wiberg.
“I was born in rural southern Saskatchewan, Treaty 4. My parents divorced when I was 1 year old. I come from a blended bi-racial family and have three sisters and four brothers.”
Tragically, her youngest brother passed away in 2021.
She explained, “My childhood was a difficult one. I grew up without my mother and lived on an isolated farm where my siblings and I were subjected to daily trauma due to family violence and substance abuse.
“I had my first taste of alcohol when I was a toddler. This was due to neglect and it was not my choice. When I became a pre-teen, I started abusing drugs and alcohol as a way to fit in and cope with my unresolved trauma.”
She continued, “I would pretty much try anything just to numb myself. This went on for many years and my addiction became more severe. Being a recovering addict is a life-long journey and I have learned from Elders to be gentle with myself and others.”
Wiberg said the farming community that she was raised on was very hostile and overtly racist towards Indigenous people.
“I vividly remember being called racist slurs by classmates which began in Kindergarten and continued on as the years went by. There seemed to be no justice or escape from the bad things happening. I felt as though I had no voice and no one to turn to for help.”
In spite of the painful circumstances she was facing, she always knew that racism was wrong and even as a young child she had dreams of one day having the voice and the courage to speak out against it.
Wiberg left Saskatchewan when she was 16 years old to live with her birth mother for the first time in Edmonton. She said her mother is an Indian Residential School survivor who as a result was robbed of having the parenting skills and cultural teachings she needed in order to care for her properly.
As Indigenous people, we often face many components of vulnerability and there is no shortage of predators that prey upon those vulnerabilities, she added.
“When it comes to human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation we are often talking about organized crime,” said Wiberg. “I believe the buyers, exploiters, and profiteers are specifically targeting the Indigenous population because they see us as easy targets, sub-human and disposable, assuming it somehow lowers their risk of being reported and convicted of a crime.
“This has got to change.”
Wiberg explained that the crisis of sexual exploitation of Indigenous people is very much stigmatized and difficult to talk about in our communities. She said that exploitation and trafficking of Indigenous Peoples has been occurring since first European contact with Christopher Columbus – Columbus being one of the first reported and documented traffickers of Indigenous people.
“I believe the only way we can disrupt and combat this threat to the safety of our women, girls, gender diverse, men, and boys is to begin by sharing our stories as survivors in a cost free, judgment free, safe, loving, welcoming, and culturally appropriate spaces,” said Wiberg.
“We need to know the issue in order to solve the issue.”
She also has many recommendations to Indigenous communities being targeted by organized crime.
“We need to develop public education programs, supports and services tailored for Indigenous communities, led by community members and survivors,” she said, adding that Indigenous people need to continue socializing the threat of sexual exploitation, building awareness and taking preventive measures.
“We must listen to, believe, and amplify the survivor voices,” she emphasized.
“We also must remind ourselves that our pain is not the only thing that frames us. We must continue to celebrate our rich and diverse culture as Indigenous people.”
Recent race based anti-human trafficking data shows us that Indigenous women and girls make up at least 50% of the reported cases of human trafficking in Canada for the purposes of sexual exploitation. 97% of human trafficking victims in Canada are women and girls.
The average age of a trafficked child in Canada is 13 years old. Studies show this age is even younger for Indigenous victims.
Additional data tells us that only 4.9% of the entire Canadian population self-identify as Indigenous (First Nations, Non-Status, Métis, Inuit). The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in this crisis is staggering and alarming to say the least.
Wiberg describes SSBAM (Stolen Sisters and Brothers Action Movement) as a 100% grassroots (non-funded) movement taking action and raising awareness on the human rights crisis of Missing, Murdered, and Exploited Indigenous People (MMEIP).
Formerly named the Stolen Sisters Awareness Movement, the Stolen Sisters Awareness Walk was created in May 2007 and was the first awareness walk in the province of Alberta raising provincial, national and international awareness specifically on the violence and disproportionate number of missing, murdered, and exploited Métis, Inuit, Non-Status and First Nations Women and Girls.
SSBAM is co-organizing several upcoming events including on June 14th Okîsikow Way Day event (https://www.facebook.com/events/551219416364563). The event will honour the spirit and intent of Okîsikow (Angel) Way, along with an important announcement. Okîsikow Way Day was originally unveiled in Edmonton on June 14, 2011.
On October 4th Edmonton Sisters in Spirit Vigil will be held.
Wiberg continues to offer testimony and share her story as an advocate. She advises and works with law enforcement and other agencies including: Safer Way-Out Advisory Circle, Not in My City Campaign, Act Alberta, Alberta Government’s Human Trafficking Task Force, S.T.O.P Program, ALERT Unit.
She is also co-organizing an ongoing petition to see the banning the sale and public display of the Confederate flag in Edmonton.