Human trafficking in Canada has parallels with 19th-century slavery

“Journeying in Dignity” is the theme of the 9th International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, celebrated on the Feb. 8 Feast Day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese religious sister, who as a child had the traumatic experience of being a victim of human trafficking. (Photo by Yupa Watchanakit,

By Sr. Nancy Brown, SC, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – On Feb. 8 we celebrate the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of trafficked survivors. It is also the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, and Talitha Kum International and the Unions of Superiors and Superiors General of Religious Institutes will offer an online pilgrimage of prayer called Journeying in Dignity for survivors of trafficking.

Through the intercession of St. Josephine, let us pray for all those who are currently caught in the scourge of human trafficking, especially those women and children escaping the violence in Ukraine. Visit to take part.

St. Josephine is indeed a saint for our times. Many of the traumatic experiences that she endured are similar to the painful reality of today’s prostituted/trafficked persons. Her journey can be described as a series of transitions from Africa to Italy, from torture to liberation, from Muslimism to Catholicism, from Bakhita to Josephine. Although she was born over a hundred years ago, aspects of her enslavement continue to happen in our world of 2023 and in all parts of Canada.

St. Josephine Bakhita endured traumatic experiences that are similar to the painful reality of today’s prostituted and trafficked persons, writes Sr. Nancy Brown. (Artwork by Tianna Williams, courtesy of Ascension Press)

Due to the horrific torture inflicted on her at an incredibly early age, Josephine could not remember her family name. Her traffickers called her Bakhita – “the fortunate one.” Later in her life she was baptized and received the name Josephine. My preference is to call her St. Josephine – reflecting her choice and the life-giving transformation that happened in the second half of her life.

Born about 1869, St. Josephine lived a normal happy life as a child with her prosperous family of six children in the district of Darfur in Sudan, Central Africa. At age 9 she was kidnapped by Arabs, sold many times by her captors, and moved from place to place, not knowing what was happening to her nor where she was.

Today young girls in particular are lured into sexual exploitation at a young age without any understanding of what is happening to them. Many are forced nightly to give sexual services to numerous strangers and are frequently moved from city to city, not knowing where they are or how to escape. Some of these youths are homeless, but some come from normal families, just like St. Josephine. Online platforms are the current avenue for kidnapping innocent young people today, with digital luring exploding during and after the pandemic.

St. Josephine frequently experienced extreme forms of violence. She said the most horrific pain was a process called scarification in which over a hundred wounds were carved into her body. For many prostituted or trafficked persons today, the perpetrators insist on branding or tattooing their names and symbols on the person to show their power over them, thus further violating their equality and dignity as a human person.

Life changed for St. Josephine in 1883 when she was bought by an Italian diplomat and sent to Italy to work as a maid for a wealthy family. While there she was fortunate to accompany a child to school each day. At the school she learned about Catholicism and was introduced to a religious congregation, the Canossian Daughters of Charity.

After winning her court case to stay in Italy, St. Josephine gained her freedom. In 1890, she chose to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Shortly after, she made her profession as a religious woman and for the next 50 years dedicated her life in service of others.

She died in 1947 after a period of struggle with memories of her childhood sufferings, not unlike the constant flashbacks that survivors often deal with throughout their lives.

What an amazing story of transformation, from a very painful youth to the Spirit of God acting in her life – a wonderful transition from torture to service – indeed an example of courage, resiliency, and dedication.

Today, Pope Francis commits the Church “to raising awareness of the growing need to support victims of these crimes by accompanying them on a path of reintegration into society and the recovery of their human dignity.”

To learn more about St. Josephine or human trafficking, see the Canadian bishops’ pastoral letter For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free (link). A study guide Working Towards Freedom has also been prepared by the Archdiocese of Vancouver and the dioceses of Victoria and Saskatoon to raise awareness and offer suggestions to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, the Archdiocese of Vancouver Anti-Human Trafficking Committee will host a one-hour webinar to introduce the study guide and offer ways to use it in various settings. The webinar is intended for anyone who wants to learn more about human trafficking, especially clergy, religious, diocesan or parish staff and volunteers, and educators.

To register for the webinar to be held Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. Pacific Time / 9 p.m. Saskatchewan Time, please visit For more information e-mail


  • “Working Towards Freedom” – The diocese of Saskatoon has joined with the dioceses of Victoria and Vancouver to produce a new resource about the scourge of human trafficking:
  • International resources for the Feb. 8 day of prayer and awareness:
  • An online pilgrimage of prayer and awareness via live video can be joined in the early hours of 8, from 2:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. SK time: LINK
  • Additional local event Feb. 22 – Through the efforts of the CWL at Saint Anne Parish, the City of Saskatoon will mark Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Wednesday, Feb. 22, with a flag-raising ceremony planned at noon, Feb. 22 at City Hall Square in Saskatoon; everyone is welcome.