A resident who has recently moved to the qathet region has been awarded the Order of Canada.
Diane Sowden, who took up residency in this community in July, is one of 135 new appointments to the order, as announced by Mary Simon, governor general of Canada. Sowden has been recognized for her leadership in raising awareness of and preventing the sexual exploitation and human trafficking of children and youth.
Formerly of the Coquitlam area, Sowden is founder of the Children of the Street Society, which was formed in 1995. She has since retired from the organization and has moved to Powell River, where she had purchased property seven years ago for the purpose of retiring here.
“I retired a couple of years ago and when we bought the property [in Powell River] it was always with the plan that we were going to retire there,” said Sowden. “We’re just thrilled to be here.”
Sowden said when she received the message from the governor general’s office about her induction into the Order of Canada, it was “quite overwhelming.”
“To me, it has made it so well worth all of the years where I had put in the hard work to get national attention on the issue of fighting sexual exploitation,” said Sowden. “It’s not a feel-good topic, and not everyone wants to talk about it, but everybody should know about it. I’m glad it’s going to get some attention now.”
Prior to Children of the Street Society’s formation, Sowden said she owned a market research company with a couple of hundred staff.
“When we lost our daughter, it just changed my passion and what was meaningful in life,” said Sowden. “I started speaking out about the issue, and because of my background in research, when I went public about the issue, I had several other parents who were in the same situation and were very silent because of not wanting to go public with what was happening in their families, feeling judged and not knowing what to do.
“Some people were so depressed they couldn’t get out of their beds. I realized at that point it wasn’t an isolated situation and something had to be done at a bigger level than each one of us as individuals. As a country, changing the Criminal Code of Canada and child protection was needed, so that parents and workers were able to intervene and keep kids safe. And, after you did intervene, how did you keep them safe?”
Sowden said because of the lack of support and understanding she felt when she went through her experience, she also realized what support other families needed. She said the initiative began with a family support group. There was realization that there were common threads in the stories on barriers that were set up for parents on how to intervene. So, in 1995, Sowden incorporated Children of the Street Society and started working on the issues, and also conducting education as prevention.
“We now go into schools and talk to the kids,” said Sowden. “That was a big barrier. I went to the school board and presented and wanted to go into classes and talk to kids about this and was told, no, I couldn’t talk about that. I said, ‘well, you know what? It’s happening. Why aren’t we talking about it?’”
The school board relented and initially let Sowden’s organization talk to grade 11 and 12 students. She said that age range was late, however, because the average age of recruitment is 13 and 14.
Organization reaches 25,000 students per year
“Fast forward, 25 years later, our staff that goes into the BC schools that request us to come start as early as grade four,” said Sowden. “In grade four, we don’t use the term sexual exploitation, but we talk about online safety and who these people may be and how they can manipulate you.”
Sowden said by the time she retired, 25,000 youth each school year received the presentations, all over the province. She said Children of the Street Society has even made presentations here in School District 47.
Along with education comes support. If a student comes forward, they can’t just be left, said Sowden.
“We have supports for the young person, we have supports for the family, so we’ve done interventions, and we’ve connected with other agencies so it was a wrap-around program,” said Sowden. “If we couldn’t provide it, we knew exactly who could and worked with them as partners. If a young person was willing to give a statement to police, we were there with them, and supported them through the court system.
“So, it turned out to be prevention, right to being supportive after a young person was able to leave the exploitative situation. I was very proud of that.”
Although Sowden is retired, her organization is still going, having been absorbed by another, larger, community organization.
“It started with me at the kitchen table and over the years we were able to set up offices and get bigger, and now, it’s significant,” said Sowden. “The thing I’m most proud of is all of the staff I’ve had over the years who have taken on the issue, with young people coming in from university for a stepping stone job, who are now working at different levels of government.
“There are some very high-profile positions and they have taken it on as one of their passions. That, I’m just so thankful for.”
In terms of her Order of Canada, Sowden was notified about three weeks ago by the governor general’s office. With COVID-19, there has been no scheduled induction ceremony, but there’s hope something can be coordinated in the future.
In terms of her connection to this community, Sowden said former mayor and businessperson Stewart Alsgard is her cousin. She said 47 years ago, when she and her husband were on their honeymoon, they came to Powell River and stayed with Stewart’s parents, Anne and Al. She said she and her husband hadn’t spent a lot of time in the region prior to moving here but came back and forth into the community on occasion.