SERIOUS ABOUT ‘SERVE AND PROTECT’
On the morning of March 31, 2015, Toronto police called a news conference to announce charges against two men and a woman for trafficking a 14-year-old girl at a local Marriott hotel. A second girl, 16, had come forward, and investigators suspected there may be more.
After the police had finished speaking, Dawn Lavell-Harvard took the podium: The force had invited the president of NWAC to take part because it was concerned the victims might be aboriginal, and too scared to come forward. She pulled no punches.
“SOMEHOW, WE HAVE RECRUITERS ... TAKING OUR GIRLS RIGHT OUT FROM UNDER OUR NOSES.”
— DAWN LAVELL-HARVARD, PRESIDENT OF THE NATIVE WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION OF CANADA
“We have many remote First Nations where the only way in is with an airplane – we don’t have roads in our communities. In many homes, we have no hydro, no water, no schools in some of our communities – and somehow, we have recruiters … taking our girls right out from under our noses,” Dr. Lavell-Harvard said, drawing a straight line between such girls and the missing and murdered.
Her emotional appearance that day was the sign of a sea change. 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.
The relationship between police and girls on the streets “has come a long way,” says Kari Thomason, co-ordinator at Métis Child and Family Services in Edmonton. “It’s changed for the better.”
Vancouver police also have shifted gears. They say that sex work involving consenting adults is no longer an enforcement priority. Rather, they are targeting higher-risk cases, such as those involving traffickers.
Yet victims are still afraid to come forward: Many have been conditioned to mistrust the police, or have had bad experiences with them. Also, cases drag on, and can take a year, if not two, to reach court.
Lack of information is a handicap the RCMP readily acknowledges. “We definitely are trying to improve our methods of data collection,” says Inspector Suzanne Black, who is in charge of the RCMP’s Federal Co-ordination Centre in Ottawa.
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.”
The centre has no government financing but, thanks to two donors, has enough operating money for its first two years. To assemble better information, it will build on existing relationships with law enforcement, analyze trends based on its hotline response (like Polaris) and track down other publicly available stats.
Published on February 10, 2016