Before one of his concerts, country music artist Paul Brandt welcomed fans to talk to him on stage. They may have expected a bit of banter, but instead Mr. Brandt told them stories about child exploitation in Cambodia and sex-trafficking survivors he met in Alberta. The fans grew awkwardly silent as they looked down at their feet. You could hear a pin drop, the country singer recalled.
Mr. Brandt said human trafficking is difficult to talk about and that’s one reason the crime has continued. But he’s hoping his work with the Alberta government’s new human trafficking task force will change that.
His appointment as chair of the task force has some questioning what expertise a musician can bring to the table, but Mr. Brandt has spent years advocating for victims. His interest began 15 years ago, when he made his first trip to Cambodia and met a group helping sexually exploited children. Now, he runs an organization called #NotInMyCity that works to raise awareness about human trafficking in Alberta and across the country, focusing on children and youth.
Mr. Brandt said he hopes Alberta’s task force will gain insight and information from experts and survivors to help inform the province’s work on trafficking. The group is focusing on sex trafficking and labour trafficking in Alberta, and has also been asked to look into organ trafficking.
“I fully understand that government committees are often wallpaper. This one won’t be. This one will present recommendations to the Alberta government, informed by data, balanced expert panels, frontline workers and those with lived experience,” Mr. Brandt said in an interview.
“If we get to the end of this and there’s not true change, if we haven’t centred Alberta’s response to human trafficking victims around the victim, then we failed … and I hope by the end of it, the rest of the country will look at what we’ve done here and go, ‘That’s the way it needs to be done.’”
Mr. Brandt’s appointment has been met with criticism from those who feel he doesn’t have the expertise to chair the task force.
Lise Gotell, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Alberta, said she believes he was a “very poor choice” for the position.
“I do understand that he is a passionate advocate against child sexual exploitation. But he certainly doesn’t have the expertise either gained from frontline work or from academic knowledge to lead a task force on such a complicated issue as trafficking,” said Dr. Gotell, saying he has a “narrow interest” in the issue of child sexual exploitation and “no expertise” in labour trafficking.
Dr. Gotell said she would not have had an issue with him being a member of the task force, but that his appointment as chair shows the Alberta government “doesn’t much care about expertise.”
Mr. Brandt said he welcomes the criticism, and that it’s important people voice their opinion and hold them accountable.
“I understand people’s concerns, but I see it really as a great privilege to bear the brunt of criticism and controversy in the act of standing for freedom," Mr. Brandt said.
Mr. Brandt was a nurse at the Alberta Children’s Hospital before his music career took off. After spending about 10 years in Nashville, Mr. Brandt moved back to Alberta in 2006 and lives near Cochrane.
“I really welcome these conversations, and I think it’s good that people are talking about it and trying to figure out, you know, who the best people are to solve these problems. But in the meantime, victims deserve way more than us just sitting around talking about it.”
Dr. Gotell also took issue with the composition of the government-appointed task force, noting that survivors were not included. She said someone from the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking Alberta (ACT) should have been appointed to the group.
The seven-member task force includes Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee; Tyler White, CEO of Siksika Health Services; and Patricia Vargas, director of Catholic Social Services.
Celia Guilford, interim executive director of ACT Alberta, said her organization is the longest-running in the province and the only one that works with victims of labour trafficking. She said it has a victim response program, an education program that offers training to police officers and health care workers, and also conducts research.
“I will say we were surprised we were not named to the task force,” Ms. Guilford said.
“I do hope the task force will reach out and work with the other organizations in the province to bring in the knowledge they may lack because of who’s on the task force,” she said.
Ms. Guilford said she believes Mr. Brandt will bring a lot of attention to the issue as chair.
“I think his heart is in the right place. He’s been working on this issue for a long time, and I think that his popularity will bring more attention to this issue than somebody who doesn’t have as large a presence as he does.”
Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said Mr. Brandt is passionate about the issue, calling it a “no-brainer” to ask him to lead the task force. His celebrity status, he added, will help bring awareness to the issue.
“He’s just the right person to help build bridges, also beyond just Alberta. I think he’s the right person to help us raise awareness across Canada.”
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