The Hub Counselling grad fights against human trafficking

Counselling grad fights against human trafficking

Linea Xaysana devotes career to raising awareness and supporting survivors

When Linea Xaysana first started working at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre in 2006, there was no training about human trafficking or warning signs to watch for.

Many of the youth in custody were in gangs, often to fill the void of family or a sense of belonging or survival. Some young girls told her they were escorts for their gang.

“I knew this was wrong,” she recalls. “But at the time, I didn’t have the language to identify it.”

Xaysana (Master of Counselling ’23, Bachelor of Professional Arts, Criminal Justice and Corrections ’07) was just starting her career and about to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice that she started at Lethbridge College and finished at Athabasca University (AU).

Her job involved working with youth in custody, including young girls who had been sexually exploited—often by an intimate partner. It often starts as a perceived romantic relationship, but leads to isolation, control, and coercion, she says.

“The victim thinks they are in love, but really the perpetrator is just using manipulation tactics, so the victim, typically a young female, can be tricked into complying with his demands, which, horrifically, is selling her body for money.”

– Linea Xaysana (Master of Counselling ’23)

Shedding light on human trafficking

Human trafficking is often regarded as modern-day slavery where people—predominantly women and girls—are recruited, transported, and sexually exploited or forced into labour. In 91% of reported cases, they’re exploited by people they know—and one third are exploited by an intimate partner.  Nearly a quarter of victims are 17 or younger.

It’s a crime that happens in every corner of the country, from major cities to small towns. Xaysana notes it’s a major problem in Indigenous communities and for migrant workers at risk of exploitation. And while most Canadians recognize human trafficking is a significant issue, research shows most of us assume it’s happening to non-citizens.

“It’s happening a lot more than most people realize,” she explains. “Due to the vast ways traffickers gain control and the discreet nature of the crime, we often bypass it in our daily lives and are not even able to identify it.

“It’s on the streets, it’s in businesses, it’s in hotels, it’s on farms, it’s in our kids’ school, and sadly it’s on our kids’ phones.”

A silhouetted woman stands facing a window

Xaysana has spent much of her career working for change. She’s worked directly with survivors and community agencies, and her efforts with Alberta Justice contributed to the province’s first human trafficking legislation in 2020.

Soon to celebrate her second AU degree at convocation on June 19, the Master of Counselling grad is about to embark on a longtime dream: to establish a not-for-profit foundation that provides barrier-free mental health and healing services and supports to survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking.

It’s a journey that in many ways started in childhood, witnessing firsthand the effects of trauma on the children her family fostered, and the good that can happen from caring, listening, and providing a safe space. But it’s also informed by her background as a Métis woman in the mental health and justice fields—a “two-eyed seeing approach” that shapes her blended worldview. 

Foster kids, dirt bikes, and ostriches

Xaysana grew up the youngest of four siblings on a 1.6-hectare (four-acre) hobby farm in Invermere, B.C. Her dad worked with the forestry service and her mom poured her energy into the farm and raising an eclectic assortment of animals: toy poodles, cockapoos, kittens, horses—full-size and miniature—goats, donkeys, rabbits, and ostriches.

The farm, on the edge of town, was known as a welcoming place for foster children. Her parents fostered more than 250 kids at various times during Xaysana’s childhood.

“My mom’s always been a caregiver, strict but fair, and loved having kids around.”

Linea Xaysana with goats on the family farm in Invermere, B.C.
Linea Xaysana, age 7, with goats on the family farm in Invermere, B.C.

The children in the family’s care would get to learn about the animals, but they’d also get to enjoy time just being kids: ripping around on dirt bikes and skidoos and doing black flips on the trampoline. “It was a super-entertaining place for kids. It was a lot of fun.”

View of farmland at sunset with mountains in the backgroundThrough those relationships with the children they fostered, she also learned about family violence and trauma. It wasn’t unusual for social workers or police to stop by the farm as some of the children wrestled with symptoms of severe trauma. In one case, an older boy chased Xaysana and her sister with an axe.

But there were also special bonds, like the five-year-old girl who came to her room at night when she was afraid of falling asleep on her own. The girl looked up to Xaysana as a big sister, and trusting her to help her feel safe at night.

One eight-year-old boy told Xaysana he didn’t know what a Christmas stocking was. It was a moment she realized just how privileged she was. That Christmas morning, she got up early to wake the boy and his brother, so they could experience the joy of opening their very first Christmas stocking.

“What I always recognized was that the foster kids were with us because something really bad happened at home, and they needed a safe place with safe people. We always just tried to provide that.”

From corrections to counselling

Xaysana credits those childhood experiences with influencing her future interests in psychology, recovery, and criminal justice. Unlike her sister, who pursued a career in policing, she liked the idea of doing something between law enforcement and social work where she could also work with youth. “It was a nice blend for me.”

After 14 years of working in various roles within the Edmonton Young Offender Centre and youth probation, Xaysana had an opportunity to work in victims’ services with what was then called Alberta Justice and Solicitor General. Through that role, she worked with community organizations that support victims of crime, including sexual assault centres, child advocacy centres, and organizations working to fight human trafficking.

At that time, only two anti-human trafficking organizations were receiving government funding. So when former Alberta premier Jason Kenney announced in 2019 a nine-point action plan to combat trafficking persons, Xaysana asked her executive director to be involved.

“I didn’t know exactly what was shaping out, or how we were going to move forward, but my ministry took accountability for it, and I just had to be part of it,” she explains.

She was directly involved in supporting a provincial task force, a project that involved 16 months of work and consultations with jurisdictions across North America and nearly 100 subject-matter experts, survivors, law enforcement, and academics. The task force’s final report and recommendations were accepted by government and serve as a guiding document to much of Xaysana’s work.

Alberta legislature

Those efforts culminated in October 2022, when the province announced $20.8 million to put the task force recommendations into action.

In September 2023, the government created permanent positions dedicated to combatting human trafficking in the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Services.

Xaysana became the manager overseeing the area. For the past year, she’s been part of a unique and close working partnership with Not In My City, Native Counselling Services, and Reach Edmonton to build a new community-led Alberta office for combatting trafficking persons—one of the task force goals.

Though the office and program area are new, Xaysana has “incredible support” from leadership and the community.

“This work is very much based on relationships, leveraging resources for the betterment of survivors and implementing recommendations in a way that are actually going to be effective,” she explains. “This work is so important, because lives are on the line every day and we need to work collaboratively to ensure we aren’t missing anything or anyone.”

As Xaysana’s career evolved, she sought opportunities to expand her education and skills. She was interested in psychology and social entrepreneurism, so in 2020, she enrolled in AU’s Master of Counselling program.

Returning to AU allowed her to continue her work with the government, but also raise a family as a wife and mom of a 12-year-old daughter and three stepdaughters aged 18, 21, and 23.

“I didn’t want to use my weekends to leave my family and spend time at a school. I still needed to work full time and be there to support and enjoy time with my family.”

HERizon Healing Society

Today, Xaysana is focusing her attention on another challenge: non-profit founder and executive director. After graduating in 2023, she began conceptualizing HERizon Healing Society.

Athabasca University Master of Counselling grad Linea XaysanaHERizon will support survivors and victims who’ve experienced intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking within a mental health and holistic healing capacity.

As a proud citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Xaysana loves the idea of blending Western medicine and psychology with Traditional Knowledge and healing practices. Her blended worldview is much like the Metis sash—woven with colourful threads of knowledge, diversity, history, empathy, compassion, and community.

She’s also interested in exploring the power of land-based healing and animal therapy, such as equine-assisted therapy for survivors who wish to explore this “beautiful type of treatment,” she says.

HERizon services will be free and available on weekdays, evenings, and weekends to accommodate client needs. HERizon practitioners are to be specialized in working with BIPOC persons, as Xaysana says these populations are often at higher risk and have limited access to services.

“A major gap in current systems is access to long-term mental health services for survivors,” she says. “The premise around HERizon is that it’s completely barrier-free.”

Finding light in the darkness

After a career devoted to supporting survivors of some of the most horrible crimes, Xaysana says there’s a lot more work to do. Most instances of human trafficking go unreported to police and the problem is worse for vulnerable populations, Including youth, women and girls, Indigenous, and migrant persons she says.

For all the darkness she encounters at work, Xaysana relies on the people she works with to provide lightness,  compassion,  and genuine care for the wellness of others. They also want to bring traffickers to justice and find resolution, safety and peace for survivors.

“The glory moments that keep me walking this path is connecting directly with survivors and community organizations,” she says.

“Having those connections and letting them know that they can reach out to somebody that they can trust, that’s what really keeps me going.”

Without the “unconditional love and support” from her husband and daughters, Xaysana doubts she’d be where she is today.

“I am so blessed to have been encouraged throughout my career and as I ventured my studies at AU, while maintaining full time employment. It was tough. Some days almost unbearable, but I gained so much from my graduate program and I am now positioned to fulfill career goals and dreams of my own.

“I am endlessly grateful and excited for my next chapter.”

Linea Xaysana embraces a horse at sunset
Linea Xaysana was known as "the horse girl" to her family. In this photo she hugs Stitch, the horse of longtime friends in the Columbia Valley near Invermere, B.C.

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