Missing and Murdered: The Trafficked (in Canada)

Tavia Grant, Missing and Murdered: The Trafficked. The Globe and Mail, 10 February 2016. “Indigenous women and girls are being exploited by gangs and other predators with little being done to stop it. Missing and Murdered: The Trafficked: The story behind our investigation into the exploitation of indigenous women and girls, by Tavia Grant, 10 February 2016: “The Trafficked project sprang from an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. In the course of that reporting, the issue of human trafficking surfaced as a factor that puts some aboriginal women at even greater risk of disappearing or being killed. The Globe and Mail spent three months investigating the subject, dedicating one reporter full-time to delve into who the victims are, how the crime is committed, what the long-term impact is and how the federal government has responded.”

To most Canadians, human trafficking evokes images of women smuggled from far-off lands or over the border.

In reality, it needn’t involve physically moving anyone anywhere – the legal definition is recruiting, harbouring, transporting or controlling the movement of a person for the purpose of exploitation. Most of it is sex trafficking, and it overwhelmingly takes place within Canada’s borders. Of the 330 cases the RCMP has identified, 311 – 94 per cent – are domestic.

It is also something in which indigenous women – and girls – are vastly overrepresented. Aboriginal people make up just 4 per cent of the population, but a study in 2014 found they account for about half the victims of trafficking – Public Safety Canada calls them the country’s “population most vulnerable to exploitation.”

Natalie [not her real name], like every survivor The Globe and Mail encountered during three months of research – which included more than 60 interviews with trafficked women, their families, police, researchers, advocates and front-line service providers here and in the U.S. – firmly believes that she nearly wound up among the more than 1,200 aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since 1980….

The situation is an open secret….

In 2012, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government unveiled a four-year action plan to prevent human trafficking, prosecute the perpetrators and aid the victims. It is set to expire in March, and Public Safety Canada, responsible for co-ordinating the federal response, could not provide a breakdown of how the $25-million earmarked for the plan (money the departments involved had to find within their existing budgets) has been allocated.

But the Globe investigation has found that more than 90 per cent of what has been spent appears to have gone to law enforcement and to addressing international trafficking. Less than 10 per cent – up to $500,000 a year administered by the Justice Department – has been devoted to victim support, and even that hasn’t been entirely put to use.

It is impossible to gauge the full extent of sex trafficking in Canada – the crime is underreported, and many victims don’t realize that is what has happened to them. But the cost – to society and each victim – is significant. Depending on the length and severity of the case, it can range from $1.1-million to $1.6-million, according to a 2013 study by Nicole Barrett, a human-trafficking expert at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law.

The total includes the victim’s pain and suffering, loss of education, earnings and work experience as well as health-care and justice-system costs.

But far worse, human trafficking “is costing aboriginal people their lives,” says Rose Henry, a First Nations educator in Victoria. “This should be raising alarm bells. But people are choosing not to be aware because it also brings cultural shame – on everybody, not just on the indigenous people.”…

Human trafficking is not a new problem in Canada, but its classification as a crime is: The legislation was introduced in 2005. As of last August, the RCMP says, charges under the act have led to just 34 convictions specifically for human trafficking (another 56 were for related crimes).

Of the 531 victims in these cases, about 30 per cent were under 18 at the time of the alleged offence.

Unlike the United States, Canada has neither a broad national co-ordinating body on the issue, nor any detailed annual report on trafficking. There is no central data-collection mechanism, and the information that is gathered rarely includes the victim’s ethnicity – partly for the sake of privacy. But the RCMP is well aware of the problem: Domestic trafficking for sexual exploitation “exists and is widespread,” notes a 2013 study by the force that makes special mention of the higher proportion of indigenous women….

Over the past decade, more than 20 [Canadian government] reports, testimonials and studies show that aboriginal people are over-represented in human trafficking cases–and many urge that something be done about it….

Canada has been criticized internationally for the situation. A U.S. State Department analysis released last year describes it as a source, transit corridor and destination country for sex trafficking, and calls women from aboriginal communities “especially vulnerable.”…

In a scathing report last March, a United Nations committee declared that the overrepresentation of indigenous women in Canada stems from their economic and social marginalization and puts them at a “disproportionately high risk for disappearance and murder.” The committee added that “insufficient efforts have been made” to address their vulnerability.

There is “no question Canada lags well behind other nations on this extreme human-rights abuse,” says Barbara Gosse, who was senior research director for a 2014 national task force on the issue sponsored by the Canadian Women’s Foundation….

Many factors increase the vulnerability of aboriginal women to trafficking. Studies have shown that most victims have already been abused, while many have been taken into care. Indigenous girls and women are far more likely to have experienced both.

Other contributing factors include the intergenerational trauma that resulted from the residential-school system, systemic racism and grinding poverty, along with poor housing, limited educational opportunities, high rates of violence more broadly, and a lack of culturally relevant support services.

In a landmark ruling last month, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against aboriginal people by its chronic under-funding of child-welfare services on reserves….

Eight of the nine sex-trafficking survivors who spoke to The Globe and Mail were abused as children. Six spent time in group homes or foster care. Seven have parents or close relatives who went through Canada’s residential schools (the remaining two couldn’t say for sure)….

The link with foster care is difficult to ignore – in fact, it’s “a direct connection” says Dawn Lavell-Harvard of NWAC [Native Women’s Association of Canada]…. Nearly half – 48 per cent – of kids under 14 in foster care in Canada are aboriginal children….

Indigenous girls are more likely to suffer from inadequate social support, on reserve or off.

For example, infrequent or costly bus service to remote communities leaves some with little choice but to hitchhike for school, services, social visits or shopping, putting them alone, and vulnerable, with adult strangers.

The 2014 study by Public Safety Canada, meanwhile, identified a “clear link” between sex trafficking and a lack of safe, affordable housing, which can lead to overcrowding and couch surfing that sees children seeking shelter with distant relatives and others they barely know.

Another major factor is limited access to education. Because many remote northern communities don’t have high schools, indigenous students often have to leave home when barely in their teens and head to larger centres, where they are billeted or stay with acquaintances….

Away from the bustle, noise and bright lights of the emergency ward at Surrey Memorial Hospital, there is a room with soft yellow walls, plants and a painting of beach grass. With controlled access, it is secure and feels like a quiet sanctuary. This is where patients who show signs they may be trafficked are brought for care.

It’s a new approach being taken in British Columbia’s second biggest city by forensic nurses at the hospital. They have been trained both how best to treat people who have been subjected to violence and how to give testimony in court.

They also have developed Canada’s first online tool kit to help emergency workers detect and assist victims. Front-line health-care providers are often the first point of contact with victims of trafficking. The list of what they see is lengthy: evidence of sexual violence, burns, bite marks and bruises (all usually hidden by clothing), as well as tattoos used as branding, sexually transmitted infections, miscarriages, unwanted pregnancies, pneumonia, overdoses, post-traumatic stress syndrome, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, addiction. (They’ve also witnessed how traffickers track girls by their cellphones and, at least in one case, an ankle bracelet equipped with GPS.)

But even if there is no physical evidence, illness and violence are so pervasive that, eventually, “trafficking will produce a health consequence,” says Tara Wilkie of the Surrey Memorial forensic team.

Patients are provided with support after leaving the hospital, but Ms. Wilkie says the after-effects of trafficking can leave someone with lifelong physical and mental-health issues….

“We see a lot of very subservient behaviour,” says Larissa Maxwell, manager of anti-trafficking programs at Deborah’s Gate, the Vancouver safe house that is Canada’s first high-security sanctuary for trafficking survivors….

She says residents ask permission to do the simplest things, such as going to the bathroom or just sitting down….

Some branches of law enforcement are forging partnerships with social agencies and nonprofit groups as they intensify their efforts against traffickers, and take a new view of their victims.

They are being more proactive, which often means “knock and talks” – combing through personal ads, such as those on Backpage.com, a U.S.-based classified website whose listings are so associated with sex trafficking that Visa, MasterCard and American Express have stopped servicing it. When girls look underage or coerced, the police send them a text, posing as clients, then show up at the door to remove those who are under 18 and offer assistance to those who are not….

Better data is also a major goal of a new national co-ordination centre officially opening this spring. Co-founded by Ms. Gosse and Ms. Redsky of Ma Mawi, it will have its headquarters in Toronto and plans to team with the Polaris Project, a U.S. anti-trafficking organization. The goal is to expand a national hotline for people being trafficked and exploited, and to let the public report suspected trafficking situations. Ms. Gosse estimates the U.S. “is about 10 years or so ahead of us on this matter … so we don’t need to invent the wheel.”…

Education and the justice system are major battlegrounds in the campaign to protect young people from human trafficking and rescue those it has claimed.

Dr. Lavell-Harvard, who studied aboriginal academic achievement for her PhD at the University of Western Ontario, says indigenous young people should have more support when moving to some place new for school or to look for work.

In many cases, she says, traffickers “are preying on our best and brightest who want a better life.”

She would like to see services similar to those provided to refugees: help to navigate banking, health care and services. “People don’t realize that, if you’re coming from a remote, isolated First Nation, you might as well be coming from a foreign country.”…

If prevention fails, however, reforms to the justice system could reduce the impact of trafficking by improving tense relationships, both with the police and with courts not well equipped to deal with it.

A key element is helping trafficked women come forward and providing them with better support when they do.

The 2014 national task force recommends changing the Criminal Code so that the offence rests more on what a perpetrator has actually done than on a victim’s ability to perform on the witness stand….

…[A]ccording to frontline workers, judges urgently need to be briefed. Currently, they receive little or no special training, either on the complex nature of the crime, the severe, long-lasting impact it can have or on the great need for sensitivity. A federal court judge in Alberta, for example, now faces an inquiry over remarks he made during a sexual-assault trial. “Why,” he asked the victim at one point, “couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”