Saturday, April 10, 2021

Why does Alberta have a country star leading their human trafficking task force?

Why does Alberta have a country star leading their human trafficking task force?

CALGARY—His meticulously-shaped felt cowboy hat pulled down almost to his eyebrows, Paul Brandt looked every bit the country music star as he stepped to the podium.

But he wasn’t at the Alberta press conference, flanked via video feed by Premier Jason Kenney, to talk about his two-decade long career, his chart-topping hits, or even the old Ford commercials where he sang about pickups “built for life in Alberta.”

He was there to talk about human trafficking.

“It’s an honour to have been asked to serve as chair for the Alberta human trafficking task force and I’m pleased the accept the responsibility,” he said. “The task force will begin its work together tomorrow morning.”

That will include talking to experts about what needs to change, working with survivors of trafficking, beefing up collaboration between advocacy groups and eventually providing recommendations to Alberta’s United Conservative government.

The seven-member panel also includes a police chief and the head of an Edmonton community safety organization, but it was Brandt’s appointment that raised eyebrows across the country.

His cowboy hat and spectre of celebrity, set against the backdrop of a government fond of striking task forces with occasionally head scratching appointments, had some wondering if the country singer had wandered onto the wrong stage.

In fairness, Brandt, born in Calgary, is known first and foremost — to those who follow country music, anyway — as a performer. Back in the mid-90s he was a pediatric nurse when his music hobby turned into a record deal, and his first big single “My Heart Has a History,” propelled him to the top of the American country charts.

In the two decades since, he’s produced a steady stream of country hits and collected many industry awards.

But along the way, the singer has quietly begun building a side gig as an advocate against human trafficking. In 2017, Brandt founded #NotInMyCity, an initiative to combat child sexual exploitation, partnering with the Edmonton and Calgary airports as well as police.

When talking about how he got involved in the cause, Brandt often mentions a long ago trip to Cambodia. Last fall, he wrote in the Star about meeting a small girl there who was being taken to work in a brothel.

“Since then, I’ve had a feeling of urgency in the pit of my stomach: What will I tell my daughter I did about this? How will I teach my son how to respect and interact with women?”

Part of the issue, he explained in a followup interview, is that human trafficking often flies under the radar.

“Good-willed people would never imagine that this happens. It’s just not on a regular, normal, functioning person’s radar that there’s this trade … happening in Canada to children.”

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While it’s not immediately clear how the task force will operate, or what Brandt’s role within it will be, he’ll be working alongside the likes of Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee, Patricia Vargas, the director Catholic Social Services and Tyler White, the CEO of Siksika Health Services on the first nation east of Calgary.

In a release, Kate Quinn, the executive director of Edmonton’s Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, called the work ahead “hopeful.”

“The task force is instrumental in compelling us to move forward on challenging and complex issues. I am confident the members understand the exploitation, suffering and trauma caused by human trafficking,” she said.

Speaking at the press conference Tuesday, Brandt said he’s met with those who have been trafficked in Alberta, including a girl who was seven when it began, and spoke of the “severe emotional and physical damage” that trafficking inflicts.

He said he sees hope in getting police services and advocacy groups to work together, and added that many people just don’t know that trafficking is something that happens in Canada.

“Indecision is not an option. it’s never been part of the spirit and character of Alberta,” he said. “As a father, a husband and someone with a voice, doing nothing was simply not in an option.”

Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex.n.boyd

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