Our Voices

OpEd: Nova Scotia Human Trafficking Rates: Alarm and hope

By Charlene Gagnon and Miia Suokonautio, YWCA Halifax

The 2021 Statistics Canada report on police-reported rates of Trafficking in Persons charges found the rate for Nova Scotia increased by more than 400% from 2018 to 2019 (from 1.0 incidents for every 100,000 to 5.3) and is more than three times the national average (1.4 in 2019).

An increase in reported crime rates is typically seen as a bad thing.  But what if we know that underreporting of a crime is pervasive? 

A reliance on crime rate reporting as an indicator of safe communities misses how systemic misogyny, racism, and trauma actually work.  Victims fear for their safety and often cite a process that is overwhelming and re-traumatizing.  Sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and slavery in particular are chronically underreported because victims must also serve as witnesses in an adversarial criminal justice system where their credibility is fair game.  For this reason, for example, it is difficult to prosecute the rape of a sex worker or the violence enacted on a woman who has herself been charged of child abuse.

While at first glance alarming, is the increase in police-reported rates of human trafficking in Nova Scotia actually an indication of improvements in our system as a whole?  In other words, are we maybe on the right track?

For context, since 2016, communities across Nova Scotia have been mobilizing to address human trafficking and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation including child pornography and the exchange of sex for basic needs including rent and transportation.  YWCA Halifax convenes the Trafficking and Exploitation Services System (TESS), currently made up of 184 individuals from 81 agencies across the province.  The YWCA is also co-chair with the Province of Nova Scotia of a provincial Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Committee, with representation from multiple departments and community agencies.

Over the past five years, the YWCA has trained over 2,000 people to be detectors of sexual exploitation, to identify warning signs, to support disclosures, and to report to officials when appropriate or required.  We’ve deployed a provincial team of peer outreach workers to work alongside victims, survivors, and families, including when they are pressing charges or participating in investigations and trials.

In Nova Scotia, positions specific to human trafficking have been created within law enforcement and the justice system; we now have a dedicated provincial investigation team, a dedicated Crown prosecutor, and dedicated provincial victim services navigators. There has also been an investment in research which has led to the creation of specialized social services within child welfare and the community sector.  Wrap-around case management and a survivor peer network are currently in development.

In short, over the past five years, a foundation of support for victims of human trafficking in Nova Scotia has been laid and the rising rates of police-reported incidents lead us to cautiously hope that it is solid.

To add mortar to this same foundation, we were thrilled to learn that starting this fall, learning outcomes related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth will be delivered as part of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Healthy Living 7 core program for grades 7 to 9 and compulsory for all students.  This gap in youth education and awareness was one of the first issues identified by TESS partners in 2017 and there have been many people working for such a change to take place.  We are looking forward to collaborating with the Department of Education on supporting the development of lesson materials and training for educators across our province.  Prevention through education remains key as youth are on average only 13 years old when first trafficked.

Lastly, it behooves us all to remember that police-reported human trafficking rates do not reflect the true prevalence of these crimes.  Rather, these numbers serve as a testament to the courage of victims who come forward and their trust in a system to support them as they seek remedy and exit. 

While still shocking, Nova Scotia’s numbers are evidence that we are no longer blind to the problem of human trafficking.  We see.  We believe. We support.                     


Statement on Enfield-Based Child Pornography Charges

February 9, 2021 – Halifax

YWCA Halifax stands with children and youth who have been subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in all its forms, including child pornography alongside of the issue of human trafficking.  Any time children and youth are lured, recruited, and groomed for their participation in the commercial sex trade, it is a form of violence and abuse against children. 

In response to the Enfield-based case announced today, YWCA Halifax and our Trafficking and Exploitation Services System (TESS) partners are standing by and ready to support any children, youth and families affected as well as any others that may or may not be revealed publicly.  If you need supports or services please reach out to us or any of the 70+ partnering agencies of the TESS Community of Practice.  You can contact us at tess@ywcahalifax.com.

We know that many in Nova Scotia are reeling from the recent revelation that someone close to them stands accused of having participated in the production of child pornography.  We would like to remind Nova Scotians that, unfortunately, the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth is widespread.   Some people seen as community leaders or who have positions of power, trust and authority are using their standing and privilege in the community to sexually exploit children and youth.    

YWCA Halifax asserts that:

  1. We need to believe children and youth who come forward with allegations against community leaders and especially those with access to vulnerable young people.  It is only through belief that allegations can be investigated and processed through the criminal justice system.
  2. We need to stop thinking that perpetrators of the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth fit a particular profile or come from certain backgrounds or communities. They can be anyone.  If we allow our biases and stereotypes to guide our judgement, we may miss red flags. 
  3. We need to support community-based approaches that will keep our children and youth safe while they are accessing programs and services in community.  This includes better screening of adults who have access to youth as volunteers or professionals, improving systems of reporting and creating a system of response when people do come forward.
  4. We need to have difficult conversations about the social and cultural underpinnings that normalize the sexual objectification of children and youth.  These are conversations we must have with our family members, friends, neighbours, and colleagues.
  5. We need, together, to address the needs of young people that make them vulnerable to predation, including poverty, racism, homelessness, abuse, and colonialism.

If you are a member of the community that is feeling shocked and uneasy at how close you came to a perpetrator of sexual exploitation, please take this opportunity to learn more about the problem of CSEC.  Join us in becoming part of the solution by raising awareness, believing victims, and supporting the work of the many community agencies across the province working with vulnerable youth and families affected by this issue.    

In solidarity,

Miia Suokonautio, Executive Director and the team at YWCA Halifax


What every Nova Scotian needs to know about childcare and COVID19 

By Miia Suokonautio, Executive Director, YWCA Halifax & Jewell Mitchell, Executive Director, Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Education 

June 5, 2020 

COVID19 has posed serious challenges for Canadians, including the inadequacy of care for those experiencing homelessness, the serious under-resourcing of elder care, the thin profit margins of small independent businesses, and the need for income security broadly writ. 

For Nova Scotians caring for and living with young children, the wholesale closure of schools and daycares while prohibiting contact with potential caregivers who are not immediate household members has meant that the full-time care of our province’s children has fallen entirely on parents and guardians. Full-time here doesn’t mean 40 hours per week, by the way, but rather oftentimes grueling 14-hours per day, every day of every week of each month that we are in isolation. Imagine here the lone mother expected to work from home while caring for a 14-month old and a three-year old. 

What do we know about the plight of Nova Scotia’s children in general? The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, citing StatsCan data, has noted that one in four Nova Scotian children lives below the poverty line. More than one in three in Cape Breton. 

We know also that child poverty is mother poverty, as more than 90% of lone-parent households in receipt of income assistance are mother led. For families earning less than $50,000 per year, net childcare costs account for more than 30% of family income. Often, for low income families, childcare is the single greatest household expense, surpassing even housing costs. 

Although we’re apt to be dubious of silver-bullet solutions, childcare is a near perfect one. Quality, accessible childcare has extraordinary, proven benefits: children are better prepared for school, children living in poverty have early access to learning, resources and healthy meals, and children with early indications of diverse needs can be identified and given the support they need to succeed. And, as COVID19 has so glaringly and painfully pointed out, childcare enables mothers and parents to work. 

What most Nova Scotians, including parents of children in the thousands of childcare spaces across the province, probably don’t realize is that during this pandemic our province has seemingly stumbled into something truly remarkable. Unlike many of the other provinces, our Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development continued to pay parent fees during the closure of our childcare centres. The early-learning workforce was protected and centres were supported to be ready to re-open when the time came. Childcare subsidies and operating grants continued unabated and, incredibly, lost parent fees were picked up by the Department. 

Think about it. For operators, there was no loss in revenue. For the workforce, they kept their jobs. And for families, there were no childcare expenses. 

This is, in fact, the very scenario for which childcare advocates have been fighting for decades. We know, unequivocally, that childcare is an integral part of our economy, a keystone to women’s participation in the workforce, and an evidence-based response to supporting the success of all children in our province. Sadly, all orders of government across the country have argued, time and again, that universal childcare is not feasible, not affordable, and just not a realistic possibility. 

And yet. COVID19 has taught us otherwise. When resources needed to be found, they were there. 

Licensed centres are now partially re-opening June 15th with continued financial support until the fall when, it’s planned, they will be fully operational and classrooms will again be at capacity. But imagine, just what if, parent fees continued to be covered even after the pandemic? 

Imagine the life-altering impact this would have on mothers’ participation in the workforce, on household incomes, and on children’s well-being. Perhaps COVID19 has provided the very opportunity Nova Scotian families have needed all along. 

As the saying goes, never waste the lessons of a crisis. For too many women, children and families in our province, returning to business as usual would indeed be a terrible waste. 

For more information: 

Miia Suokonautio, YWCA Halifax, m.suokonautio@ywcahalifax.com, 902.229.7993 

Jewell Mitchell, NS College of Early Childhood Education, jewell.mitchell@nscece.ca, 782.414.3482 


A Statement From YWCA Halifax

June 1, 2020

Like many of you, we have been following closely the news coming from the US and Toronto with respect to the many manifestations of anti-Black racism.


As an intersectional feminist organization committed to social justice and anti-oppression, we also see racism at the individual and systemic levels nationally and locally here in Nova Scotia.  We know that people of colour in our community experience racism and that YWCA Halifax staff, while in the course of their jobs, experience discrimination based on their race.  We also know that many of the people we have the privilege to serve are marginalized because of gender and also because of race and Indigeneity.

We stand with local Black activists and those organizations who have dedicated themselves to this cause and who have, for a very long time, worked to bring issues of racism to light. They are working for the systemic changes needed.  

YWCA Halifax also stands with the diverse members of our Board and staff team who have put in a tremendous amount of work within our agency and in our broader community.

The values of YWCA Halifax include diversity, inclusion, equity, security, and respect.  We stand against policies, procedures, and practices that contradict these values and perpetuate systemic racism.


Our staff and community are encouraged to participate in local advocacy, seek out opportunities to attend community events, and to meaningfully join in the difficult conversations required.  Our staff and community are also encouraged to be informed and be committed to work toward a just society where people of colour are represented and seen in positions of power and can live in safety and security with the knowledge that their lives matter.


We are doing our own work internally at YWCA Halifax and know we have much still to do.  Part of this is to exercise our voice in taking a position on the issues that matter to all people in our community.  We must not and cannot remain silent and YWCA Halifax is committed to the ongoing fight against racism.  That is our promise to you.


A Statement From Our Executive Director, Miia Suokonautio

April 27, 2020

It’s been a week since the Nova Scotia shootings.  A week of grief, mourning and remembering.   

In the days and weeks ahead, as we attempt to make sense of this attack, we also remember that there are many who are still mourning.   Each of the 22 victims had those who loved them dearly, and we keep their grief in focus as we engage in the difficult conversations that will follow.   

We at YWCA Halifax, along with many others, suspected this event may be rooted in violence against women.  We already know that the men in Toronto’s van murders and the Montreal Polytechnique shootings were both fueled by misogyny.  As details have emerged, our suspicions about the Nova Scotia shooter were confirmed.

Gender-based violence has a deep impact on everyone in our communities.  Women and trans people who are victims and survivors are most affected.  But men who are caught in the cross-hairs, parents who lose their sons and daughters, and children who lose their mothers, are also affected.  In a recent meeting with a high level civil servant with the federal government about the importance of women’s housing, he shared that he was intimately aware of this issue as he had watched his mother suffer at the hand of his father and that they had been uprooted and homeless as they fled for safety.

The rage against women that is realized in this type of staggering violence is enough to rock our province and our nation off our feet.  Our sense of security is uprooted.  The emergency alerts at the end of last week revealed just how wounded we have all become.

Many of the staff and volunteers at YWCA Halifax who walk alongside women and girls have also been unmoored.  We’re thankful for the team at Fire Inside for facilitating debrief sessions for our team.  For us, we are taking care of our people so that YWCA Halifax can continue to stand alongside victims of violence and their families, just as we have for almost 145 years.  And we will also continue to work with boys on cyberviolence, with employers on workplace culture, and to be a strong voice on this issue.

We invite all Nova Scotians to join us, and the many agencies, activists, journalists and citizens who tirelessly advocate for the structural and cultural changes required to eliminate gender-based violence.  There are many resources in our communities.  If you don’t know where to begin, call us.  We continue to serve during the pandemic. 

In solidarity,

Miia Suokonautio and the YWCA Halifax team


YWCA Halifax; We continue to serve

April 9, 2020

Sometimes history’s long view is the perspective we need today.

YWCA Halifax has been serving our community for nearly 150 years.  To put this into perspective, we supported women and girls in Halifax during both World Wars, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 and the peak of polio in the early 20th century.  We’ve been a key resource for women and girls as far back as when Canada’s second Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie was in office although always evolving to respond to emerging and new needs.

And so it is that we continue to serve diverse women and girls, non-binary and trans people, families and men through COVID19.  While we talk about the new normal, some things have never changed.  No matter what is happening in the world, YWCA Halifax is here and is helping.

For most Haligonians, you may never need one of the YWCA’s five housing programs for young mothers, women experiencing homelessness, or youth who have been trafficked, but our programs are running and working to meet these needs.

We offer employment and business programs for women receiving income assistance and women new to Canada.  And we financially support women looking to leave violence.  In fact, there is a critical need for this program right now.

Our childcare workers are in touch with families, preparing programs and running playgroups online.

Our staff are working hard to serve our community because they are invaluable to our collective well-being, especially now.

For all of us working at the YWCA, we serve because we believe that the needs of women, girls, and diverse community members are our priority.  For me, it’s because I want to make sure that no one is left behind.  

While it might look a little different, the YWCA is here.  And while these are unprecedented times, our history tells us that our brightest future will come when we work together and support each other.  We’re ready.

Thank you for those who continue to support our efforts. We appreciate your confidence in us.

Miia Suokonautio

Executive Director

YWCA Halifax