Sea to Sea: Voices from the Canadian Anti-Trafficking Community – Part I

Written by Amie Gosselin


When I first moved to Cambodia in 2008, I kinda sorta hoped I would change the world. The savior-victim complex was fierce and strong in me. Leaving Cambodia in 2014, five and a half years after landing in Phnom Penh, I had a far more sober vision of transformation in the counter-trafficking sector.

Not because change doesn’t happen – it does. And not because good work isn’t happening – it is. But because real community transformation takes time. And as a Westerner, born and bred into the mantra of instant gratification, this was a really hard thing to learn. 

I’m back in Canada now and the more I think about global social issues, the more I’m seeing that approaching them as we would a marathon, instead of a sprint or a leisurely jog, is more realistic and helpful. Certainly we must hope and pray for urgent endings to these things. But at the same time, we need to mentally prepare for the long haul.

History itself shows that there are no quick and easy solutions to abolishing forced labour and exploitation. Human trafficking and slavery have existed for millennia and still do today. These practices are often deeply enmeshed in a community’s social, religious and cultural fabric and ending them requires transformation at the core of a community.

Definitely not easy. Certainly not fast.

William Wilberforce, the hero of abolition of the 18th century, is a prime example. He first learned about the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1783 and started introducing bills and legislation in Parliament soon after. In 1807, almost 25 years after Wilberforce’s introduction to slavery, it was partially abolished. But it wasn’t until 1833 – 50 years after Wilberforce first engaged in the anti-slavery movement – that it was banned throughout the entire British Empire. And then he died three days later.

Talk about a marathon.

If we don’t prepare ourselves for the long haul, we’ll burn out. Because when we have our hopes on quick fixes and fast change, we’ll surely tire and expire.

Let’s not expire.

The following principles have helped me as I continue to work in counter-trafficking and social change:

Principle 1: Pacing ourselves. 

According to REI, the popular outdoor and wilderness supply store, “one of the most common causes of injury” in marathon training is “building weekly mileage too soon, too fast”. Any hopeful marathoner needs to start training early interspersing shorter runs with longer ones all the while building up to 42km. Similarly in counter-trafficking, pacing ourselves is important. We need to learn the context and the ins and outs of the community we are serving. What is the view of women and gender? Are exploitation and abuse enmeshed with cultural and religious values? Which people and organizations are already involved supporting survivors? Walking into a community expecting immediate change will only exhaust and frustrate us. We have to prepare for a marathon of working with communities and people to see change take root.

Principle 2: Be aware of your limits. 

Running for 42km is no simple task and puts people at a much higher risk for injury than jogging every day. The same goes for counter-trafficking. When we’re committed to a community and a group of people over the long run, there will be workplace hazards. Like disappointment and frustration and possibly becoming jaded over time by lack of results. Knowing our strengths and our limits is a good place to start. Working together with others is crucial. The Freedom Collaborative is the perfect place to work with others, sharing expertise and experience and resources. We can’t do it all, nor should we, and thankfully we don’t have to!

Principle 3: Start small: In marathon training, runners are encouraged to run a few shorter races, like 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons in preparation. When I lived and worked in Cambodia, I sometimes felt paralyzed by the need I saw every day. It could be overwhelming and I could very quickly get depressed and lose motivation. Part way through those five years, I began to focus more on the people and relationships directly in front of me – my geographic neighbours and my work colleagues. I learned that engaging in real relationships with people closest to me not only was the most rewarding, but also had the most impact. I didn’t change the world living in Cambodia, but many of the colleagues I worked with are. 

Principle 4: Take Care of Yourself. Incorporating rest and recovery into marathon training is so important. This includes rotating hard workout days with easier, shorter run days, and taking a complete break from time to time. We can certainly apply this to the counter-trafficking marathon. We’re far more able to help and support others and sustain our passion and commitment over a long period of time when we are healthy in mind, spirit and body. For me, this means that I don’t work all the time – even though there is no end in sight to what needs to be done. I spend carefree time with my kids. I enjoy the outdoors with my family. I spend time with soul nurturing friends. This guilt-free balance empowers me to bring great joy and passion to my work without become exhausted.

How about you? Do you find counter-trafficking to be like a marathon? How do you maintain your passion and motivation over the long haul?

Amie Gosselin is a communications consultant currently based in Kelowna, BC. From 2008-2014, she lived and worked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with an international human rights organization. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and is committed to producing communications policies and content that enable NGOs to protect and enhance the dignity of survivors of human rights abuse.