Kate Quinn, shown here while making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, has been honoured for her work advocating on behalf of Edmonton's prostitutes.


Kate Quinn, shown here while making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, has been honoured for her work advocating on behalf of Edmonton's prostitutes.

June 23, 2014

It was a bitterly cold night many years ago and Kate Quinn and her husband John Kolkman were getting ready to go to bed.

Suddenly they heard someone pounding on the door of their inner city home. They opened the door. A frantic aboriginal girl pleaded for help.

Quinn looked out and saw two men running up the walk.

The couple pulled the girl into their home and slammed the door.

"What do we do now?" asked Quinn.

They mentioned calling the police but the girl replied, "The police won't help me."

The girl lived only six blocks away but given the brutal weather, the couple decided to drive her home.

Kolkman went out to start the car and when he turned the lights on, he saw the two men waiting for the girl behind the garage.

"They were waiting to hurt her," remembers Quinn.

"It was a catalytic moment for me." They were both women, she thought, but what was it, what were the differences in society and their lives, that put that young girl out on the dangerous inner city streets, while Quinn was safe and warm in her own home?

Quinn took action. It is those actions during the past 20 years of fighting sexual exploitation that won her Edmonton Social Planning Council's Award of Merit for Advocacy of Social Justice.

"Kate has been an advocate for over 20 years for women, men and children who have experienced sexual exploitation and sex trafficking," says Janice Melnychuk, a former city councillor and school trustee who nominated Quinn.

"I met her in the early 1990s when she began this work as a concerned member of the McCauley neighbourhood."

Some of Quinn's accomplishments include co-chair of the Communities for Changing Prostitution volunteer group, working for the creation of the Prostitution Offender Program (john school), one of the creators of the CEASE Men of Honour awards program, community partner in a University of Alberta initiative to use text messaging as tool to offer support to sex trade workers posting online ads.

That one incident saving that terrified girl on the bitter night may have been the trigger to Quinn's involvement in working for the sex trade workers, but her social justice roots were planted almost at birth.

"I was born, as my mother Myrna liked to say, on Route 66 in Rolla, Mo.," says Quinn.

Her young Irish Catholic parents set off from their hometown of East Chicago, Ind., when her father Don was accepted into the Missouri School of Mines. "He really wanted to be a geologist."

When they were living in student housing, the Quinns welcomed Kate, the first of their 11 children. Lured by the booming oil industry in West Midland, Texas, the young family moved west.

Kate realizes that move proved to be the early shaping of her life.

She explains:

"As Catholics, we were a minority. Our parish community were of the Catholic faith, but of every ethno-cultural group – German Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, Catholics from African American community. We were the only church and the only school that were integrated. We knew what it was to be a minority and we knew what it was to be integrated in a time and history when everything else was separate.

"That was what shaped me."


But she also came face to face with the reality of haves and have-nots.

"We were a family in the middle. We did not have very much. Some days we would go to the little Hispanic church. I loved the music and colour. I also saw there was a difference from the little we had to the poverty that others had.

"My mom did have a woman from the black community come and help with all of us little children. Then when we would take her home, we would go across the tracks. So I had a sense of similarities and differences.

"I learned to ask questions at a really early age. What we had in common and the differences. It comes from all those days."

Growing up in big family, Kate learned to share.

"We had a round table so that meant there was always room for one more at the table. We followed all the traditions of cultural Catholicism (including fish – sometimes macaroni and cheese – on Friday). That is the incredible gift our parents gave us."

Asked about her faith then, Kate smiles and says, "I was quite a pious child. I loved the Latin and reading Church history."


After 12 years, Texas oil began to sputter at the same time Calgary's oil companies began to gush, and the Quinns came north.

Kate studied linguistics at the University of Calgary. Her honours thesis concerned the Sarcee, now called Tsuu T'ina language.

Firm in her faith, the St. James Catholic Church parish priest, caught up in the Church's transformation during Vatican II, asked Kate to form a folk group to provide music at Mass.

Then, feeling the pull to be part of a lay Christian community, she moved to Edmonton in the fall of 1976.

She journeyed to Sierra Leone with Canadian Crossroads International and returned to Edmonton to work in intercultural work.

"The Scarboro Foreign Mission Society was pulling together a lay Christian community in the Boyle McCauley area. I thought I would like to come just for a year."

She bursts out laughing. "And I never left."

Their idealistic community at 95th Street and 106A Avenue was intended to be a presence in the neighbourhood. So while the others worked, Kate stayed home.

"We wanted to be a gathering force, a hospitality community."

Scarboro Mission priests visited, they hosted home liturgies, ecumenical liturgies, potluck suppers with the neighbours.

It was during those open door meetings and celebrations that she met John Kolkman. He was from the Christian Reformed Community. So while from different denominational streams – "RCs and CRs," she says with a smile – they walked the same path. Married in 1981, they have two sons, David and Brendan.


She leans over to show her wedding band – two golden flames sitting side by side – "unique individuals neither stronger than the other."

In the fall of 1978, Kate joined Development and Peace as its Alberta-Mackenzie animator and worked there for 13 years. As a mother, she knew she could not be away from home 50 per cent of the time after a nanny left and she resigned.

It was the late '80s early '90s when street prostitution erupted in the inner city.

John was active in the community league and league action. Kate offered to take notes and applied the skills she learned while a Development and Peace animator – listening to what the people were saying and learn.

"We had to wake up the whole city. This is not just an inner city issue," she says.

Kate became chair of Communities for Changing Prostitution.


"All these years later, I think the key is we are blessed in our community in that the early leaders in this community group had all been raised in either RC or CR or other Church social justice environments," she says.

"So our first response was not to say to the women on the street 'Get out of our neighbourhood.'

Instead they asked questions. What is happening? Why is this happening? What do we need to learn?

In 1992, the numbers were 250 exploited children under 18 in the city and 750 in the 18-to-30 age bracket.

"Put numbers and stories together then you can move into action, "say Kate.

What are the numbers now? No one knows because so much contact is done by cellphone and Internet.


During their media walks, the activist group found families of the exploited, people who are trying to rebuild lives.

"We listened to the people's suffering, listened to the muffled voices and took our cues from them."

Given the stress of her work, Kate turned to Irish dancing for a while but now is immersed in TALES, the Alberta League Encouraging Story Telling. She studies the Irish myths and fairy stories, always "looking for a kernel of social justice in those stories."

Her present job is executive director of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation.

Her tasks now involve everything from working with social workers, to giving training sessions, to writing MPs, to drafting proposals and reports, and more.

What can society do to change these victimized lives?

"See and hear through the lens of equality and compassion," says Kate.

Get past the era of looking down on those forced into prostitution.


"Put on a new pair of glasses, turn up your hearing and hear the stories that lead them to this. See the victimization of children, victimization of the vulnerable, their circumstances, poverty, where they have no community."

The roots of prostitution, says Kate, lie in the feminization of poverty and general inequality of the patriarchal system.

"Why is a man willing to say 'I'll give you hundreds of dollars to have access to your body but only pay you $9.40 to work in a restaurant?"

Faced with limited options, vulnerability that someone else exploits and nowhere to turn, they sell themselves.

The proposed law, says Kate, is shifting towards creating a new understanding.

Her prayers call for such a change.

"I pray for the light and the Spirit to move in each one of us," says Kate. "I pray that we confront the darkness and oppression. And I also pray for those who hurt people."