This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
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.
How the crime pays
The attraction: Sex trafficking may be organized crime’s fastest-growing business and one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The International Labour Organization has pegged annual profits from forced sexual exploitation at $99-billion (U.S.) Although a low-risk, high-profit enterprise to criminals, the ILO and many others consider it a form of modern-day slavery.
The victims: Although primarily female, targets also include trans people and youth of any race or gender, often with histories of being marginalized, abused or isolated.
The market: In the past, some cities have had “kiddie strolls,” but the marketing of girls has mostly moved online, to classified-advertising websites such as the notorious Backpage.com. The ads are for escort services but use code words that suggest a girl is underage, such as “fresh,” “innocent” or “new to scene.” Some simply say “young.” Also, girls can be listed by ethnicity (“native”) and “available 24/7” is one tipoff they’re being trafficked.
The payoff: In 2013, the RCMP reported that one sex-trafficking victim can generate between $168,000 and $336,000 a year – for a pimp who may well run an entire “stable.” Last year, Toronto police cited the example of one young woman who had brought in $90,000 in three months.
The down side: “Trafficking in persons” has a mandatory minimum sentence of four to six years (depending on the victim’s age) and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. But even a decade after the law came into force, convictions remain rare. For example, a B.C. man who lured at-risk teenagers as young as 14 was recently sentenced to 23 years. But of the 30 counts on which he was convicted, only one was for human trafficking; the rest were for related offences.
How pimps operate
Their image is glorified almost everywhere – from music and movies to kiddies’ Halloween costumes. Pimps even have their own how-to manuals.
Some advice from The Pimp Game: Instructional Guide by Mickey Royal: “You’ll start to dress her, think for her, own her.” Sinister, but not far off. Recruiters for the sex trade use a variety of approaches, a common one being “the Romeo pimp,” who entices young women – and men – into a life few of them would ever want.
The hunt: They begin by seeking out suitable candidates, in most cases vulnerable young girls. According to Diane Sowden, who runs the Children of the Street Society in Coquitlam, B.C., the average age that girls are first exploited is 13 or 14.
Contact can be made almost anywhere – at a mall, a party, an amusement park, the bus depot, through friends or at school. Some stalkers even set up bogus job interviews. Increasingly, it is online – through social-media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, or dating sites, like Plenty of Fish and Tinder. Ms. Sowden says key risk factors also include kids who are in foster care and who are LGBTQ – in other words, who may be isolated. Although usually men, recruiters can also be women, or even girls who have been pimped out themselves. By helping in procurement, they may not have to meet the same daily quotas, or be subjected to as much violence.
First step: The men often start by becoming “boyfriends,” luring girls with promises of love and protection – a dream of a better life. Then come the gifts, such as clothes, an iPhone, even a pet.
“They make you feel special, they learn about you, listen to you … they gain information about you, to eventually use that against you,” says Carly Kalish, a therapist at East Metro Youth Services in Toronto. She has worked with more than 50 trafficking survivors in the past year.
Getting serious: The next step is coercion, with many techniques employed: introducing victims to hard drugs, threatening to send compromising photos to their parents, violence, confiscating their identification, hijacking their social-media accounts, literally branding them with tattoos. Victims are told never to trust the police, and anyone who wants to leave must pay an exit fee.
Tipping point: Then comes complete control. Victims who have become addicts are told they have to work to pay off their “drug debts.” Others are simply terrified to leave for fear of retribution, against them or their families.
But many suffer from a form of Stockholm syndrome, believing they are in love and unaware of what’s really happening. In these cases, The Pimp Game advises, “slow it down,” and become more cold. “She’ll start to crave the intimacy and be willing to get back into your good graces. “After you have broken her spirit, she has no sense of self-value. Now, pimp, put a price tag on the item you have manufactured.”
After the fall: “Broken” is the same word Detective-Sergeant Nunzio Tramontozzi of the Toronto police force’s human-trafficking enforcement team uses to describe one girl he came across recently. She’d been locked in a basement apartment and forced to service men there and at hotels and in cars.
And how old was she? “Thirteen.”
Published Feb 10, 2016