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Obama Challenges You to Fight Modern Slavery

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The room was abuzz -- and the world was waiting -- in the moments before President Barack Obama recently delivered a pivotal speech to the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, just hours before he was to speak at the United Nations.

What pressing world issue would he tackle? Opinion around us seemed certain: Obama would speak to the recent tragic events at the U.S. consulate in Libya. Yet, after warm applause and a few obligatory jokes, the President dove into a subject few anticipated.

"I am talking about the injustice, the outrage of human trafficking which must be called by its true name: modern slavery," he thundered.

When we were kids, slavery was something out of school history books, invoking images of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman leading escaped slaves through the dead of night to freedom in Canada.

As teenagers, we discovered that slavery was not a relic of history. We met girls in Bangkok, Thailand, sold to brothels by their families, and starving boys in a carpet factory in Varanasi, India, chained day and night to their looms.

Then, last week, before a room of big names like former UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, Walmart's CEO Michael Duke, Carlos Slim, the second richest man in the world, and celebrities like Matt Damon, K'naan, and Barbra Streisand, Obama reminded his nation and the world that slavery is still very much with us.

With more than 20 million victims of human trafficking -- selling people for sexual exploitation or forced labour -- around the world, Obama called the fight against human trafficking "one of the great human rights causes of our time."

He introduced three former trafficking victims, now advocates against modern slavery, in the audience. Marie Niyonyot was kidnapped and forced to become a sex slave in the Congo; Ima Matul was an Indonesian nanny lured to the U.S. where she was beaten and forced to work 18-hour days; and Sheila White, a girl from the Bronx, fled an abusive home only to be sold as a sex slave by a man who said he'd protect her.

We were reminded of Canada's own recent tales of horror. In Hamilton in October 2010, police busted a human trafficking ring that brought more than 20 labourers from Hungary and forced them to work construction jobs for no pay. Right now in Vancouver a man faces 36 criminal charges, including human trafficking, for forcing underage girls into prostitution.

Jennifer Lucking of the Toronto organization Walk With Me says it is difficult to get exact statistics on trafficking in Canada because the trade is so secretive. "Pimps and traffickers want it to be a ghost crime."

In the past three years, Walk With Me has supported 150 trafficking survivors, 80 per cent of them not immigrants but Canadian-born girls forced into the sex trade.

Human trafficking only became a crime under the Canadian Criminal Code 2005.

This year, Canada announced a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, which includes a police team dedicated to fighting the trade in human lives, training for frontline workers to spot possible victims, and more support for survivors.

Lucking says, "Canada has a lot of catching up to do compared to the U.S."

Obama detailed the numerous steps his government is taking to address modern slavery, including better training for law enforcement officials, and training for educators, bus drivers, truck drivers and inspectors, and others who might spot traffickers and their victims.

What really struck us was the President's admission that governments can't tackle human trafficking alone. Ordinary Americans must do their part. Businesses can purge forced labour from their supply chains. Obama challenged the high-tech sector, and even college students, to develop online tools and mobile apps to help young people stay safe online.

We see Obama's challenge as a challenge to Canadians, too.

Canada is home to a host of grassroots anti-trafficking groups like Walk With Me, OneChild, Free-Them, Persons Against the Crime of Human Trafficking (PACT), the Chrysalis Network, and Saskatooon-based NASHI, among others.

Walk With Me has a resource package for teachers and social workers to spot and help trafficking victims. PACT's Truck Stop program teaches truckers to spot forced sex trade workers operating at highway truck stops.

As the President said, "Every citizen can take action by learning more."

If you know someone subject to forced labour, the RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre urges you to call your local police or Crime Stoppers. Walk With Me and the Chrysalis Network run support lines for human trafficking victims.

Lucking suggests you write your Member of Parliament about the National Action Plan to ensure our government keeps its promises.

We urge you to listen to Obama's speech online. It was not widely reported in Canada, but every Canadian needs to hear his message.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger