Modern Slavery: the human trafficking issue

*This article has been updated from the printed version*

Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, often described as a modern-day form of slavery. Here in the Niagara region, the issue is more prevalent than some residents might think.

According to Public Safety Canada (PSC), human trafficking involves the “recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour.”

“Victims, mostly women and children, are deprived of their normal lives and compelled to provide labour or sexual services, through a variety of coercive practices, all for the direct profit of their perpetrators,” said a 2019 report from PSC. “Exploitation often occurs through intimidation, force, sexual assault and threats of violence to the victims or their families.”

Many Canadians say they’re horrified that trafficking exists, but relieved that they live here, where things like that supposedly don’t happen. After all, other nations use terms such as “nice” and “friendly” to describe Canadians.

“I don’t think this is the kind of place where men and women are taking people from their families and moving them across borders like slaves,” said one St. Catharines resident who opted to remain anonymous. “Even if that is happening though, I would hope that we live in a country where people discover when it does and do something about it.”

The reality is that Canada, like many other countries, is impacted heavily by the issue of human trafficking — now the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.

“In Canada, human trafficking often takes place in large urban centres and also occurs in smaller cities and communities, largely for the purpose of sexual exploitation. We know that men, women and children fall victim to this crime, although women represent the majority of victims in Canada to date,” said PSC. “More generally, those who are likely to be at-risk include persons who are socially or economically disadvantaged, such as indigenous women, youth and children.”

A 2016 report from Statistics Canada detailed that over 50 per cent of the girls being trafficked in Canada were born here. Human trafficking is a “hidden crime”, which means it is relatively difficult to track and current statistics rely heavily on individuals reporting incidents to the police. This has made it difficult to determine just how many citizens become victims of the crime.

The Niagara region is heavily involved with the Canadian human trafficking crisis. This is due to its close proximity to the United States border and its placement at the heart of Canada’s Golden Horseshoe — the most densely populated and industrialized area in the country.

Free-Them, a non-profit initiative dedicated to raising awareness and funds to abolish human trafficking in Canada and abroad, states that approximately 65-75 per cent of human trafficking victims will come through the Golden Horseshoe at some point in their journey when being trafficked within Canada.

Of that statistic, 95 per cent of victims are women, 45 per cent of trafficked persons are between the ages of 18 and 24, and 26 per cent of victims are under the age of 18. The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking has detailed that trafficking normally occurs in a number of stages. Usually, a person is firstly recruited, then they are isolated or transported, and ultimately, they are forced to provide labour or a service.

Sex traffickers approach potential victims in a variety of ways, including pretending to be a potential boyfriend or friend, contacting them via social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. Traffickers have also been observed posting false newspaper, email or internet ads for jobs and opportunities, or even threatening or kidnapping them. Often, false promises will be made to the victims about money, new clothes, work or education opportunities, financial aid for their family, etc.

Many students in the Niagara region have experienced one or more of these tactics throughout their lifetime. The good news is that some students tend to either tell a friend or an agency about the way they are approached, which helps the relevant authorities to put out warnings and investigate certain individuals and locations.

Many of these disclosures are made to the YWCA Niagara and the Kristen French Child Advocacy Centre Niagara, which, respectively, provide emergency shelter, food and assistance to women and their families and provide a safe place to help, heal and strive to end child abuse for Niagara’s children and youth.

“[The YWCA Niagara] is consistently receiving word from students at the elementary level, the high school level, students from Niagara College and Brock University who are letting us know that there may be someone who is trying to traffic them,” said Jennifer Bonato, a Brock University alumna and past president of YWCA Niagara.

Individuals who traffic and control individuals enslaved for sex are referred to as pimps. There are two types of pimps, the “Romeo” pimp and the “gorilla” pimp. The “Romeo” pimp will draw a young person into their lives with promises of love and affection and access to a more glamorous lifestyle. On the other hand, the “gorilla” pimp finds young victims and uses violence and sexual assault as a way to break that individual and gradually bring them into trafficking circles.

“One girl in Canada can make a pimp $300,000 a year,” said Shae Invidiata, founder of Free-Them. “It’s happening everywhere. Whenever I give a talk at a high school, someone will come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know this is what it was called, but I think it’s happening to my friend.’”

Victims are often, but not always, moved around by traffickers to isolate them from family and/or people they know or areas that are familiar to them. Victims of sex trafficking are moved from hotel to hotel and province to province. Individuals subjected to labour trafficking are usually isolated, sometimes on rural properties, which offers little contact with the outside world and little opportunity to reach out for help.

On September 4, 2019, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $57.22 million over five years, starting in 2019-20 and $10.28 million annually thereafter, in new federal funding to combat human trafficking under the National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking.

The National Strategy puts in place a framework to guide the Government of Canada’s efforts to empower victims and survivors; prevent more of these crimes from taking place; better protect those who are most vulnerable to trafficking; prosecute human traffickers for their heinous crimes; and embrace partnerships with provinces and territories and other organizations to maximize the impact.

Building on existing anti-trafficking efforts, the National Strategy is designed to put forward an enhanced selection of measures to combat human trafficking, which include enhanced supports to victims and survivors of human trafficking to regain control and independence in their lives; increased awareness and capacity-building efforts to prevent the victimization of vulnerable and marginalized populations; and improved criminal justice system experiences for victims and survivors.

The Niagara Region together with the YWCA launched the first regional safe house to help the growing number of young women escaping human trafficking.

“We are seeing an ever-increasing number of young women who are accessing the shelter, who are experiencing trafficking,”

said Elisabeth Zimmermann, YWCA Niagara executive director. “What we have been seeing is both in the drop-in program that we run as well as in our shelter, there’s an increasing number of young women who have escaped human trafficking [circles].”

The region will provide 50 per cent of the cost of running the safe house for the next two years, giving up to eight victims at a time a safe place and the support they need.

“It’s all of these things that have prompted the need for specialized services for these young women, and the need to ensure that it’s a confidential safe space. That’s really what’s prompted us [to move] this forward,” said Zimmerman.

The safe house is staffed 24/7 and includes both security and a peer support worker to assist the women who need the facility.

The Niagara Region has also partnered with a number of local advocacy and support organizations to co-sign the Niagara Region Emergency Response Protocol for Human Trafficking. Training is also offered to emergency response teams and support organizations on properly dealing with human trafficking cases.

The protocol, involving police, fire departments, the YWCA and agencies representing Indigenous women, victims of sexual assault and at-risk youth among others, is designed to co-ordinate services that may be involved in dealing with human trafficking.

Fire departments and EMS teams across Niagara have already taken part in the training including those in Fort Erie, Wainfleet, Pelham and St. Catharines. In addition to these emergency response groups, interested citizens have sought out the training.

As an individual, there are many ways to help combat the human trafficking issue starting at a community level.

It can take just one person to report suspicious behaviour to uncover cases of human trafficking. By learning about trafficking and becoming aware of the indicators of human trafficking and the vulnerabilities, grooming and luring practices used by traffickers, individuals are better able to make referrals and help others avoid those situations.

Back in August and September of 2019, Brock’s Human Rights and Equity department, in collaboration with YWCA Niagara, helped facilitate programs to raise awareness about human trafficking in the region. The workshop discussed barriers for individuals trapped in the cycle of abuse and the impacts of substance abuse and trauma in relation to human trafficking. The department hopes to host more workshops dealing with the issue of trafficking in the future and is trying to raise student awareness throughout the year.

Sexual exploitation and forced labor are driven by demand. Individuals who desire to help can always become advocates for women and girls who are exploited in the commercial sex industry and for those who are being enslaved by their employers. Victims might not come forward to the police or organizations for help for a variety of reasons and instead might be more likely to make disclosures to concerned friends.

Many victims of human trafficking have difficulty recognizing that they are a victim. This can come from a lack of knowledge of their rights, lack of documentation or the fact that some simply cannot reach out for help due to language barriers. PSC outlines that many rescued victims are fearful of law enforcement and lack trust in organizations that provide assistance. One of the best ways to help such individuals is through training and education to help break down some of those barriers.

In light of the recent elections, Canadian citizens can always challenge local, provincial and federal governments to deal more effectively with issues such as human trafficking. Individuals who desire to help can always find out what their government representatives are doing to address human trafficking in Canada and choose to support ethical business practices that promote supply chain transparency.

Individuals who suspect that some form of trafficking is happening in the community or to someone they know should always reach out to the relevant authorities. Individuals who desire to help can also volunteer with front-line organizations assisting survivors of human trafficking.

“I think that we can definitely change how [human trafficking] is dealt with locally at least,” said one anonymous St. Catharines resident. “If we support the organizations that work for freedom and dignity to those affected by [trafficking] and we work together to look out for our community members then we can lower the current statistic.”

Every resident in the Niagara community has a role to play in addressing human trafficking. There are many agencies serving people at risk of being trafficked in the region, which contribute by creating a welcoming environment for victims to come forward. Many of these agencies are seeking advocates and welcome any community support they receive. Even if it isn’t possible to volunteer, just knowing the resources that are available to those in need can be a big step in helping deal with the issue.

The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is a nationwide line that offers a confidential, multilingual service, operating 24/7/365 to connect victims and survivors of forced prostitution and forced labour with social services and/or law enforcement in communities across Canada. The hotline can be reached at 1-833-900-1010. Specific to the Niagara region, Victim Services Niagara has a 24/7 emergency referral line that can be reached at 905-682-2626.

Brock students who want to make a disclosure or get connected with the Human Rights and Equity department to receive support are encouraged to either reach out to svsec@brocku.ca or visit brocku.ca/human-rights. Individuals with emergencies are encouraged to reach out to the Niagara Regional Police by dialing 9-1-1.

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