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Cherry Lynne Kingsley

The Right to Be Heard

By: Patricia Pearson

Patricia Pearson

Historical Contributor

Patricia Pearson is an author and journalist whose books include Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us, a finalist for the BC Book Award, and A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine, which she adapted into an award-winning television documentary for the CBC.

She has contributed commentary and reporting to the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Guardian, among many other outlets, and was a regular columnist for the National Post. She has a B.A. in history from the University of Toronto, and an MSc. in journalism from Columbia University.

Pearson is the co-founder of Bellwoods Press, which offers clients the chance to tell their stories to a sensitive journalist and to publish a book for their extended family and friends.

Content Warning

The content of this article discusses topics of sexual violence against children. This content is disturbing and readers should proceed with caution. If you believe that the reading of this article may be triggering or traumatizing, then please forgo it.

United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Article 12:

“Children have the right to express their opinions freely, and have their opinions taken into account in matters that affect them.”

Cherry Kingsley, 2010. Photo credit: Jason Payne. Image courtesy of the Vancouver Sun.

She didn’t think she would survive, let alone gain the world’s ear. But such was Cherry Kingsley’s intelligence, spirit, and resolve that she rose from the ashes of a harrowing childhood to become one of Canada’s most eloquent activists for sexually exploited youth.

Her story began in Calgary in the 1970s, years before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. No one paid attention to the plight of two young sisters being beaten, deprived of food, locked away in a basement, and molested by their stepfather in the busy inner city. At the ages of 10 and 12, Cherry and her sister Terry sought to protect themselves: they followed the railway tracks out of town, seeking kindness and a little bit to eat as they trudged all the way to Cochrane, Alberta. 

There, a concerned samaritan called the police, who in turn funnelled the girls into separate foster care placements. At the time, the practice of reconnecting kids with extended family wasn’t common, so no effort was made to locate their aunt, Marcelle Hines in Edmonton, or their Indigenous community in Alkali Lake near the Fraser River in British Columbia, a Secwépemc First Nation territory.

Kingsley bounced through 20 foster homes in four years before being persuaded by a friend to move to Vancouver. It would prove to be not an escape, as promised, but a trap. The friend’s boyfriend compelled both girls to turn tricks to pay for their lodging. Kingsley wept and resisted, but the adolescent was isolated in the big coastal city and knew of no alternative. To distance herself from this new layer of hell, she took heroin. “I couldn’t stay connected between my mind and my body,” she would later say about being sexually trafficked. Heroin “seemed like the perfect solution.” 

Zine

A small circulation of self-published works of original or appropriated texts and images that are the product of either a single person or of a very small group. Popularly photocopied into physical prints for circulation.

At one point, Kingsley escaped her pimp by travelling to California, but she was arrested and deported back to Canada. It would be several years before she could wrench herself free of the streets and drugs entirely. In the meantime, she met a young Indigenous man who introduced her to the intricate details of his culture and who started her on contributing to a zine called The Slice. In this way, she discovered that she had a voice and could use it. “I don’t know how I would cope with the world, how it is, and not say something,” she later explained. Her friends were dying of AIDS, overdoses, and murder; she herself dwindled down to 100 pounds at five foot seven. But her mind was sharp and her spirit remarkable. She began teaching herself how to be more vocal in the community about street youth and the issues they faced. 

In 1988, a Calgary cop who monitored “the kiddie stroll,” as they used to call it, recommended that Kingsley get in touch with a young lawyer working for the John Howard Society, a non-profit that supports people caught up in the justice system. Kingsley was 16 and had written up a proposal to develop a youth-in-care peer network. The lawyer she met was Kim Pate, now a Canadian senator, who recognized Kingsley’s gifts. “I helped get grant money for a youth advocacy conference,” Pate recalls, “and encouraged her and another young woman who’d been in foster care to organize it.” From there, Kingsley began working as a peer leader for youth. “You could tell that she was a great strategist. When she was supported by someone else doing the legwork, she could achieve great things.” 

By the age of 22, Cherry was pregnant with her son, Dakota James, and had escaped the streets to begin a career of advocacy about sex trafficking that would eventually take her to major cities like Stockholm and New York. In part, the global reach of her influence had to do with a synergistic meeting with my mother, the late Senator Landon Pearson, in the early 1990s at a conference in Vancouver. Kingsley wanted to make it known that young people on the street were not “child prostitutes,” as if they were willingly trading sex for money. The police shouldn’t be throwing them in jail, and “customers” shouldn’t be getting a slap on the wrist for exploiting them. They were abused children – of whom society needed to take better care. Hard as it is to believe now, hers was a novel message.

“Thanks to her authenticity, her charisma, and her speaking abilities,” Mum later said of Cherry, “she had a huge influence – not only on me, but on so many others who needed to hear what she had to say.” Mum, a long-time advocate of children’s rights who had headed Canadas delegation on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)’, felt an immediate connection with Kingsley. “I was already 60, and old enough to be her grandmother. But I saw myself as a possible mentor for her, and in fact Cherry used to call us her tormentors.” She was teasing, but she meant that Mum, Pate, and other supporters kept her tremendously busy by constantly finding new platforms for her to voice her message. (I remember that Mum kept an old tea cup in her Honda for Cherry to use as an ashtray as they drove around to speak to school and police groups.)

When Kingsley came to lunch at my parents’ house in Ottawa, her presence was magnetic. She had a blend of beauty and no bullshit, of vulnerability and yet fierce strength, conveyed through her quick wit and flashing dark eyes.

In 1996, Mum and Kingsley attended the first World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, in Stockholm, Sweden, where the framework for discussion was the UNCRC, and what to do about the global underage sex trade. Article 34 declares:

“States parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent a) the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; b) the exploitive use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practises; c) the exploitive use of children in pornographic performances and materials.”

Kingsley, as Mum later described it, “was part of a panel with various religious groups represented, and they went down the line saying they cherished children, they were committed to fighting against sexual exploitation, and so on. Cherry was fourth or fifth in line, and when it came her turn, said, ‘Well, no, they don’t [fight.]’ I saw her speak truth to power . . . as the only experiential youth on a panel, she blew the audience away.” 

That night in her diary, Mum wrote, “Cherry tells me she feels little sense of connection with anyone yet, no one like herself with which to share impressions.” In other words, it was all still adults talking above kids’ heads about kids’ lives. There were few youth delegates at that time attending major international conferences. Kingsley decided to change that. “I want [my peers] to know there’s a whole world where they’re not a victim, where they’re strong, where they have a voice, where they can participate,” she told The Globe and Mail.

In 1998, she and Mum co-chaired Out From the Shadows, a pan-American summit held in Victoria, BC, for more than 50 sexually exploited young people. “The purpose is to provide a way for children and youth with personal experience of commercial sexual exploitation to give voice to their experiences, their needs, and their recommendations for change, and to ensure that their voices are heard and considered by the individuals and organizations who are committed to eliminating the global sexual exploitation of children,” the summit report stated. In other words, it was to be the embodiment of another clause in UNCRC: “the right of children and youth to have their voices heard.”

“We, as a society,” Kingsley challenged the attending policy-makers and politicians from the podium, “need to protect our children with the same zeal and vigilance with which we protect our property and our money . . . Listen to their voices [today], hear what they have to say.” 

Out of this summit came a plan of action developed by the young people that Kingsley later presented to senior officials at the United Nations. “Every time she spoke,” Mum said, “she brought about a change of heart.” Among their declarations – printed in the final report for Out From the Shadows – were that “the term ‘child’ or ‘youth prostitute’ can no longer be used.” What they experience “is a form of child abuse and slavery.” And “governments are obligated to create laws which reflect the principle of zero tolerance of all forms of abuse and exploitation of children and youth.”

Change happens by increments, of course, but the last pillar to fall occurred in 2017, when the Associated Press formally changed its style manual, a language guide followed by all print journalists and many authors, and banned the phrase “child prostitute.”

“She was the one who challenged the whole notion of child prostitution,” Senator Pate told me recently. “Nobody had considered it before. The change in language – from child prostitute to sexually exploited or trafficked youth – led to a whole change in thinking about it. Nobody now would presume that children somehow consented to their participation in sex work. Cherry did a huge favour to the world by challenging that perception.” 

In 2000, Kingsley travelled across Canada with fellow young advocate Melanie Mark, now a cabinet minister in BC. The pair interviewed Indigenous youth about their experiences with sexual exploitation, and that led to the report Sacred Lives. That same year, Kingsley received the Governor-General’s Award. In 2002, her aunt, Marcelle Hines, spotted a Reader’s Digest article about her long-lost niece and reached out to connect Kingsley to more of her family. “For a time,” Pate recalls, “she took Dakota to Alkali Lake, and it was the healthiest I’d ever seen her.”

Kingsley’s gift for advocacy took its toll on her, personally. “That meteoric rise up can be destabilizing,” Pate says. “It got really hard for Cherry when she won international attention. Her expectations for herself were so high, but she didn’t have enough baseline support. That’s on us. We just give [people with lived experience] a platform, compensate them financially, but Cherry needed counselling, and childcare support. We need to help them identify what they need. And to provide more fully rounded support.”

“Sometimes people have the impression there was a transformation, like a cloak, and I just took it off: ‘You’ve overcome so much,’” Kingsley said in the 2002 film Recognizing the Person. “I don’t know if I overcame any of it, to be honest. I think I live with it every single day.” 

Cherry Kingsley stands outside the Downtown Eastside’s Living Library in 2010. Photo credit: Arlen Redekop. Image courtesy of the Vancouver Sun.

Cherry Kingsley stepped back from advocacy and died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 52 in 2021. Many were heartbroken to lose her. 

“After I left the Senate, I saw less and less of Cherry,” my mother said the year before she herself died. “But I never ceased to think about her and appreciate what she had taught me. All of us may wonder, could we have done more to help her. But then we remember all that she did, and that is what we should celebrate.”

As I write, it is Stop the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Awareness Week in British Columbia, promoted by the government every March. That is something that Kingsley herself dreamed into being.

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