Indigenous women and girls are being exploited by gangs and other predators with little being done to stop it. The globe investigates
Part one: A piece of property
Natalie just wanted to belong. Her home life was troubled – parents who drank too much, an abusive boyfriend and a sense she didn’t fit in. So, although just 14, she moved in with members of a street gang.
They were her family, her protectors, at least in the beginning. She began to sell crack for them. Then she started using as well, which cost money that she didn’t have.
Suddenly her protectors took control of her life – where she could go, whom she could talk to, at times even fighting over her, as if she were a piece of property.
And there was only one way to pay the debt: sell herself. Along with crack, they trafficked her.
Now living in Winnipeg, Natalie has escaped the gang, but has asked that her name be changed; as much as she wants to tell her story, she lives in fear of reprisals.
“It’s almost like, the longer you’ve known them, the more abusive they become,” she says. Now 25, she was in “the life” until she was 18, but still looks young. And nervous, occasionally twisting her hair as she makes her story public for the first time.
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.”
Survivors Beatrice Wallace-Littlechief, Alaya McIvor and Bridget Perrier: Indigenous women account for just one in every 25 Canadians, but one 2014 study estimated they are about one in every two victims of human trafficking. (May Truong for The Globe and Mail)
Natalie, 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. “They’re scary,” she says of the gang. “You see what they’re capable of.”
The situation is an open secret.
In fact, Canada has been subject to international rebuke for failing to address it. 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.
HOW THE SPENDING BREAKS DOWN:
The federal government said it was too early to provide an overview of how the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking’s $25-million was spent over four years. Queries to the key departments involved give a picture of how the money was spent.
Money spent over four years (in millions of dollars)
Example: $1.9-million per year on a dedicated enforcement team.
Example: $421,000 in 2015 on strengthening institutions to combat human trafficking in Costa Rica.
Canadian Border Services Agency
“CBSA does not track expenditures for human trafficking specifically as combating human trafficking is part of our regular operational activities.”
The original action plan said CBSA would be investing $445,000 per year for border service officer training/awareness.
Public Safety Canada
Example: $300,000 from 2012 to 2014 on a campaign to increase awareness of human trafficking among aboriginal people.
Example: Up to $500,000 per year since 2013 on a victims' fund that has never been used to capacity.
Employment and Social Development Canada
Example: $140,000 annually on Canada’s temporary foreign worker program for activities related to human trafficking.
*Some federal departments were not part of the allocations in the action plan, but still spent some funds on human-trafficking-related projects. Status of Women says it spent $1.1-million over the four years, while Indigenous Affairs notes it spent $75,000 for one initiative to develop a handbook to help sexually exploited aboriginal women and girls.
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.”
And, as Natalie contends: “It’s been put on the backburner, so guys are getting away with it more and more because they’re thinking no one cares about these aboriginal girls – no one’s going to do anything about it anyway.”
*Published on February 10, 2016