Child, youth and family counsellor Mia Golden and Substance Use Outreach worker Lorna Mace at work on Tug of War, a documentary about the sexual exploitation of youth on Southern Vancouver Island. (Photo courtesy of Empress Avenue Media)

Documentary exposes youth sex trafficking in Greater Victoria

First edit set for release in January 2021

A documentary about the sexual exploitation of youth aims to pull back the curtain on Victoria’s dirty secret.

Principal photography has started for “Tug of War,” an independent film that explores in disturbing detail the impact sexual exploitation of youth has on victims and their families in the region and beyond.

Empress Avenue Media, the production company behind the project, follows the film’s director, Mia Golden, and other members of the Mobile Youth Services Team (MYST) as they tackle the complex challenges facing vulnerable youth.

“Predators have quickly come to realize that being online allows for easy access to youth,” said Golden, a child, youth and family counsellor with Pacific Centre Family Services Association and co-ordinator of Crime Reduction and Exploitation Diversion (CRED). “The explosion of social media, easy access to the internet and pornography and the normalization of highly sexualized and often violent content are all issues that contribute to the exploitation of young people.”

MYST, which is comprised of two counsellors and a police officer, has seen a significant increase in caseload the past few years. “The impact of social media and the opioid crisis play significant roles in this disturbing trend,” Golden said.

READ ALSO: Recent arrests skim surface of Victoria’s human trafficking problem

When CRED and the police-based MYST joined forces in 2014, the team consisted of Golden and Oak Bay Police Const. Jennifer Gibbs. In 2019, they hired another counsellor, Julia Leggett, and Central Saanich Police Corp. Pat Bryant currently serves with the team.

Police officers, counsellors, street nurses, social workers and policymakers struggle to keep up with the demand to support those in need, Golden added. “Exploitation is taking place in every community and every neighbourhood and is not limited by class or background. No one is immune, and everyone is a potential target.”

“Tug of War” examines the issues through interviews with past survivors, front line workers and parents fighting to keep their children out of harm’s way, Golden said. “It will provide insight into the realities of what’s taking place and what we can do to reduce the risks to protect children from these predators. We need to break the silence.”

In addition to her work as a counsellor, Golden has been writing, producing and directing films for about eight years and has worked with Empress Avenue Media, based in Cobble Hill, since its inception two years ago.

The concept for “Tug of War” came about as the result of candid discussions with those working in the field about ways to try and reduce the trauma and scope of the sexual exploitation of youth. A casual conversation with the film production team at Empress Avenue Media led to the idea of highlighting in documentary form what an average week looked like for those who work on the front lines.

READ ALSO: Undercover operation exposes prominent human trafficking problem in Greater Victoria

“I am extremely passionate about this documentary because I see the impact of exploitation every day,” Golden said.

“If others knew what I know then maybe there would be a bigger outcry as to what’s happening to our children and youth. So many people think this is an issue that’s happening elsewhere, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most parents have no idea that their kids are being exploited online when they think they’re in their rooms doing homework. It seems to go unnoticed until it directly impacts them. It’s a battle that most families go through silently.”

Joseph Boutilier, the documentary’s co-producer and cinematographer, said although he was familiar with the subject matter, nothing could have prepared him for the stories they have started to capture. “After the first day of filming, everyone on the Empress Avenue team was taken aback at how emotional and gut-wrenching some of the interviews were.”

The plan is to have a short version of “Tug of War” completed by the end of January 2021 for distribution to schools and organizations that work with youth. That version will target middle school students and older, Golden noted, with the feature-length version to be completed later in 2021.

“That version will hold nothing back in terms of what our team sees and the reality of what families face when fighting or their children’s safety,” Golden stressed. “At times I’ve felt utterly helpless, but working on this film gives me hope that we can raise awareness of how vast this issue is in our city and the rest of the country.”

Funding for the film was provided in part by the province’s Crime Prevention Branch through civil forfeiture grants.

For more on the project’s progress, visit empressave.com.

rick.stiebel@goldstreamgazette.com


 

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The identity of a victim is hidden to protect their safety during an interview for Tug of War, a documentary about the sexual exploitation of youth on Southern Vancouver Island. (Photo courtesy of Empress Avenue Media)

Child, youth and family counsellor Mia Golden is working on Tug of War, a documentary about the sexual exploitation of youth on Southern Vancouver Island. (Photo courtesy of Empress Avenue Media)

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