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Ride for the victims: The slow trek of the Angel Express

Alick Brooke and Guy Bourassa passed through Yorkton on horseback last week on an early leg of their journey across Canada.
Alick Brooke with Zeus at Moonshadow Stables near Yorkton during a rest stop on their cross-country journey.

Alick Brooke and Guy Bourassa passed through Yorkton on horseback last week on an early leg of their journey across Canada.

Brooke, a retired chief information officer with Alberta Children's Services, is leading a ride from Edmonton to Halifax this summer in support of the victims of child sexual exploitation.

Two years ago, Brooke founded the Angel Express Society, a non-profit that advocates for the rights of sexual abuse victims.

"I felt that this is an issue that Canadians have to wake up and pay attention to," says Brooke.

The 60-year-old speaks quietly but intensely about the topic to which he has devoted his retirement years. His passion for helping children goes back to his time with the Alberta government.

"I got to see a lot of these kids and talk to them when I was at one of the residential facilities, and I found out what they go through after they've been rescued or they get away."

"It's an epidemic in Canada," he continues. "When you look at the numbers, one in three girls, one in six boys will be sexually abused before they're 18. I don't know any other disease that impacts that many kids and leaves a lifelong scar."

His cross-country journey with his horse Zeus has been years in the planning. Brooke chose it as a highly visible way to get attention.

"Cross-Canada expeditions have occurred in numerous ways-not too many by horseback, though. And not too many with an animal like Zeus."

Zeus is certainly an attention-getter. The six-year-old Shire draft horse weighs 1,900 lbs and stands as tall as Brooke at the shoulder. Brooke calls him a "gentle giant," and together they're an unusual sight along the Yellowhead Highway.

For safety, Brooke and Zeus ride alongside Brooke's friend Guy Bourassa, a horse trainer and retired rodeo cowboy who keeps an eye on the animals as they cope with the unfamiliar situations that crop up across the country. As a former foster parent, he shares Brooke's concerns about childhood sexual exploitation. He has seen the effects firsthand.

Along their journey, Brooke and Bourassa ride for eight hours a day and spend their nights camped on the properties of ranch owners who open their doors and stables to the traveling party: owners like Karen Nordin and Garth Bode of Moonshadow Stables, who hosted Brooke, Bourassa, and their three horses for two nights near Yorkton last week.

While there, Parkland Victims Services and the Parkland Therapeutic Riding Association organized a "Meet & Greet BBQ" in support of Brooke and the local crisis intervention centre.

Between pledges, the barbecue, and a Victim Services raffle, Brooke's stay in the area brought in about $1,500, and donations continue to be accepted online. Most of it is likely to end up back in the community; at the end of his ride in August, Brooke plans to divide the money donated to Angel Express up among regional help centres such as Parkland Victims Services. His overall goal for the ride is one million dollars.

"It's not a lot of money when you think about it, but it can be a lot of money to these local organizations that are worried about two and three hundred dollar expenditures."

Beyond directly helping small sexual assault centres that are "an easy target" for budget cuts each year, Brooke hopes to raise the issue's importance in the minds of Canadian citizens and politicians. He wants legislative changes to protect the rights of victims, such as removing the need for victims in the court process to tell their story "over and over again."

Ultimately, Brooke wants to break a cycle that too often leads to victims falling into lives of depression, prostitution, or even perpetuating abuse. The first step, he says, is to remove the stigma and acknowledge the scope of the problem.

"The odds are that everybody knows somebody. They may not have told them, but the odds are that somebody close to them or a friend of theirs has been abused when they were a child. The numbers are just too large not to."