Part 1/2: How Canada’s sex traffickers evade capture and isolate victims to prevent their escape
Sex traffickers are using the country’s major highway networks to transport women and girls, taking them to small towns and cities in order to isolate them, avoid police and maximize their financial gain, according to the first research in Canada analyzing how victims are moved.
A report from the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking identifies some of the key routes traffickers use to transport their victims, isolating them from family, friends and familiar surroundings that could offer an eventual escape, and making them wholly dependent on their perpetrators. The constant movement also allows criminals to avoid detection by law enforcement and gives them access to more profitable markets.
The research suggests there’s a trend in young women being trafficked from Quebec to Alberta, where criminals can make more money selling sex services than in other provinces, according to police officers. And sex trafficking is so prevalent across Canada that it occurs wherever “there is a highway and access to the internet,” the report says.
“I think too many people believe that this is an issue that happens in other countries or that it’s an issue of kidnapping and abduction,” says Julia Drydyk, the centre’s executive director. “And, really, it’s far more commonplace.”
To compile the report, the centre reviewed academic reports and media coverage, and interviewed police officers and service providers to determine its findings. Most of the victims are women and girls, but the report notes a small number of respondents worked with male or trans-identified survivors. Interviewees said most victims and survivors they encountered were between the ages of 18 to 24, but ranged from 12 to 50.
In Alberta, shuttling victims between Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie allows sex traffickers to find plenty of willing customers near oil patch work camps, and exploit the province’s online sex markets, too.
“A growing trend in this corridor is the number of victims and survivors from Quebec who speak little to no English,” according to the report. “Not only do language barriers serve as another method of control, but it is also believed that sex buyers see women from Quebec as exotic and novel.”
Another well-worn route has perpetrators taking victims from Halifax to Moncton. Corporal David Lane, the RCMP’s human-trafficking co-ordinator in Nova Scotia, says the province is well known in the criminal and policing world for exporting victims of human trafficking. (Data published by Statistics Canada in June shows that Nova Scotia and Ontario have higher rates of human trafficking than the national average, citing figures from 2009 to 2018.) Some target women and girls from Nova Scotia because they can sell them the idea of giving them a better life, he said.
“If you’re from a rural fishing village in Nova Scotia, and someone offers you to go to live next to the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, to go to Calgary or Vancouver, it would probably be pretty lucrative,” Cpl. Lane says, “especially when you thought they were someone you loved.” That appears to be a common thread among trafficking victims, according to the report: They often know their abusers. It might even be someone they loved or trusted, such as a boyfriend, a family member or friend.
Detective-Sergeant David Correa is in charge of Toronto Police’s human-trafficking enforcement unit. Cases concerning victims from Northern Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada routinely land on his desk. Most of them have been recruited by young men on social media, he says.
His job is to investigate the crimes but also to support the victims, who face enormous pressure to testify in court. Det. Sgt. Correa’s unit gathers evidence such as video surveillance to help support their cases. He says his unit will also help victims return to their home city or province.
Many victims are hauled across the country along the TransCanada and 401 highways, which are both notorious for sex trafficking. Ms. Drydyk says perpetrators stop at all the large urban centres along the way to make more profit. “They can use cars to travel really quickly between cities, and they can change their rental car in between those areas to avoid law enforcement detection,” she says.
Two other popular thoroughfares for traffickers are Ontario’s highways 11 and 17, used to move victims from Sudbury and Thunder Bay through Northern Ontario and onward to Winnipeg. Ms. Drydyk says they view the remoteness of these highways as yet another way to avoid the police.
All that moving around can certainly make it challenging to track their movements. “They’re gonna stay in a given hotel, probably a maximum of three days, before they start really bringing attention to themselves,” Det. Sgt. Correa says.
Police also face the challenge of getting victims to trust them. They can be reluctant to speak to police because they may have had a bad experience in the past, or their trafficker has forced them to commit fraud or recruit other girls.
Karly Church is a human trafficking crisis-intervention counsellor who works with Victim Services of Durham Region and is embedded with Durham Police’s human trafficking unit. She’s also a survivor of sex trafficking who provides informal counselling and helps connect victims and survivors to services.
When police meet a victim, she often accompanies them to let them know she can help if they don’t want to talk to law enforcement. “I’d say every single time, the individual at least takes my phone number,” she says.
Sex trafficking doesn’t always involve moving victims around the country. A lot of Ms. Church’s younger clients were lured by traffickers at school. Sometimes it’s a fellow student or someone they met at a party or on social media.
“A lot of them who are under the age of 18, they go to school Monday to Friday, they come home after school, say they’re going to a friend’s house, and then they’re made to work by their trafficker.”
The centre’s report makes recommendations based on its findings, including investing in more interjurisdictional law enforcement teams and mandatory training for all levels of law enforcement. It urges finding ways to make the legal process less traumatizing for survivors, and encourages stronger partnerships between governments and organizations that work with survivors – as well as sectors used by traffickers, such as hotels and rental car companies.
“We implore all levels of government to work together on this issue and commit to funding anti-human-trafficking initiatives in perpetuity to ensure that programs and services can focus on what matters most: providing exceptional, meaningful and effective supports to victims and survivors,” the report reads.
Published on: February 22, 2021
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- Posted By: Janice Dickson - The Globe and Mail
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