About 7,500 km fill the distance between Vancouver, BC and St. John’s, Newfoundland. Four friends from Alberta traveled that distance last summer … by bike. And it wasn’t for fame or glory, or a lost bet, but to raise awareness and funds for human trafficking interventions in Canada through Defend Dignity.
BASIC (Biking Against Slavery in Canada) is comprised of Matthew Wright, Luke Wahl, Dominic Mayhew, and Ryan McAuley (pictured below from left to right). They describe themselves as “average guys” who couldn’t look the other way when they found out that human trafficking happens in their own backyard in Canada.
It’s been nearly six months since their journey ended, but their impact is enduring. Recently, I interviewed these four men to gather some of their reflections.
You spent 70 days biking 7,500km from Vancouver to St. John’s. What was it like to end up in St. John’s?
Dom: It was pretty surreal arriving at the Atlantic coast in Newfoundland, looking out at the horizon and realizing the past 70 days of hard work—plus three years of dreaming about this journey—had culminated into a single moment. There had been a lot of days of feeling like we weren’t going very far, but then when we arrived in St. John’s, it hit us that we arrived there from Vancouver by biking.
Ryan: Our arrival in St. John’s was public just enough to feel real. We had a little bit of fanfare with some family and media waiting for us, but it was still quiet enough that we could soak in the experience together. It was bizarre to have that experience come to an end, though. I wish we would’ve had more time than two days in St. John’s to process and transition into our return journey back home.
What was that transition like from biking all day, every day to returning home to a “regular” life?
Dom: It was bittersweet. There were parts of the experience I was happy to say goodbye to—like saddle sores and numb fingers—but other parts were harder. I loved the cycling, and once we’d settled into a rhythm, I didn’t want it to stop. It was nice to be on an adventure while getting in shape and being able to see beautiful places like Newfoundland.
Luke: I wasn’t necessarily sad to see the biking aspect over, but I was sad that our mission was over. We were working towards a specific goal and once we achieved that goal, we felt at a bit of a loss. We’d spent half of our adult lives working towards this mission, so having achieved it was exhilarating but weird. Ryan had brought up a good point, that we might not ever do something of this caliber again.
Ryan: Right. I remember thinking to myself, “This might be the greatest thing I accomplish in my life.” I hope it’s not, but it might be.
What were some things you learned about yourselves during that time?
Dom: There were some things I already knew about myself at least vaguely, but those things came more to the forefront. I’ve always been a person who likes systems and routines and efficiency, but I didn’t realize just how much I need that until this trip.
Ryan: I think I expected to grow more than I felt I did. I had to put myself into a certain mindset and mode in order to get through all those gruelling days of cycling, but once the trip was over, I reverted back to how I was before.
Matt: I discovered I was stronger than I expected I’d be. The public speaking part was especially challenging for me, which I had to face. So was sleeping somewhere different every night since I like routine, but all that helped me to grow and be stronger and be more confident. It helps when you’re facing these challenges with your best friends.
Dom: Life while bike touring is mostly spent in transition. You’re always packing and unpacking, moving from one place to another, giving a presentation, talking to our host family, and then focusing on sleeping so I could do it all again the next day. I really had to learn to reel it back because the journey was the whole point of why we were doing this. That helped me to soak in the experience much more.
How did the four of you function together as a team?
Luke: When Dom’s parents met us at the end, they were half-expecting us to be sick of each other, but even when we arrived in St. John’s, we were still as goofy with each other as we were at the start. We have a strong friendship. We would let each other know when we needed time alone and knew how to extend grace to each other. It was an honour to do this trip with the four of us.
Ryan: We complement each other well. We needed all of our personalities to make our team strong.
Dom: And it was cool to have complete trust in each other. Whenever there was a media interview or a presentation, we knew each other would represent our team well. It was a comfortable trust where we didn’t even need to think or worry about it.
What were some things that worked well or didn’t work well in this trip?
Matt: One of the challenges we faced was using the term “slavery” because we encountered some opposition. Some people would say we were wasting our time because they didn’t want to believe slavery still exists.
Dom: People have preconceived notions about “slavery” and human trafficking, and they aren’t always willing to change their minds. Some conversations we had along the way weren’t going anywhere because people had already made up their minds and weren’t open to receiving new information.
Luke: Another challenge is that this conversation about human trafficking might have a personal cost for people, like turning away from porn or buying from more ethical companies rather than slave-made goods. If it does cost something or require a change in someone’s life, people will probably end up ignoring the injustice.
Dom: I think some people also get sense of pride for knowing about this dark underbelly of the world of human trafficking: “Other people don’t know about human trafficking, but I know all about it. And I’m a good person because I know about it.” Even if what they believe might be inaccurate, they aren’t willing to change their minds about it because they’re clinging to what they think they know as if it’s part of their identity.
Matt: It’s so dark and heartbreaking, and we don’t want to admit it happens in our own country in Canada. It’s almost unpatriotic to say that slavery happens here because you don’t want to believe this happens—you hope the world is better than that. And if it really is that bad, then I probably should be doing something. It’s scary when we realize we can’t continue on with our lives this way.
What is an aspect of human trafficking you learned more about during your trip?
Luke: I was really surprised to find out that Nova Scotia has huge amounts of human trafficking happening, mainly because of a gang whose main activity is trafficking. I didn’t know so much of it happened in that particular area.
Matt: The need to help became more real to me as we met survivors and even one former trafficker along the way. It’s one thing to see a documentary—it’s clear it happens, but it’s not as personal. The reality and sense of urgency sunk in more as we heard and told the stories of trafficked individuals. Their real pain. And our real responsibility as citizens to do everything we can to bring it to an end.
How did you feel you influenced communities through your presentations and casual interactions along the way?
Matt: There were a number of people we encountered Canada-wide who told us that just seeing young men like us doing this kind of work was restoring their hope in the next generation of men.
Dom: That was a common theme through the trip. People thought it was cool that these young guys were doing something about it. We wanted to show them that this is a generation that cares.
As your trip came to a close, what were some of the things you hoped would become of it?
Luke: I’m on the Defend Dignity board, so I was part of the team deciding where the $10,000 we raised for the survivor’s fund went. Going through all the women’s applications, I got to read all of their stories. We ended up helping 2 or 3 survivors with tuition for school. Another survivor we helped was underage and had been living on her own for several years and didn’t have the money to cover her basic needs. It was significant to be able to tangibly see where our efforts went.
Dom: As Ryan once brought up, this trip was three months of our lives and then we went back to our normal lives. It helped grow our respect for people who engage in anti-trafficking efforts as a way of life and a vocation. I’ve settled back into my normal everyday life and it feels weird to have “left the cause behind” at least in the intense way that we approached it. But one of our goals along the way was to help people to see that they don’t necessarily need to be working full-time in the justice field to be involved—that there’s something everyone can do.
What are some of those ways that people can be involved even if they have full-time jobs or are students?
Dom: I’ve never been very politically active, but being on Parliament Hill on our trip made me realize how powerful it is to have laws protecting the vulnerable in our society. That means we have to be politically active. Writing to our Member of Parliament, signing petitions, being aware of motions and talking about them can actually have a real impact.
Ryan: I was struck but the power of education. Awareness-raising has always been a significant part of creating change. For us, we want to raise the social conscious of people. It’s really important that people are educated and aware—what they want to do with that awareness is up to them.
Dom: Each day of cycling on its own was relatively small, but all together it took us across Canada. If every person did smaller things it would make a huge difference.
Where are they now?
Luke works with adults faced by poverty and homelessness at the Mustard Seed in Calgary and is roommates with Dom. Dom is working at Mountain Equipment Co-op. Both bike at least 9km each way to work each day. Matt launched his own marketing and web design firm, True Market. Ryan works at a before-and-after school program. All of them live in Calgary, Alberta.