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Human trafficking is happening in the GTA—and it has to stop

Meet four women who are making a difference in Canada’s human-trafficking crisis

All around the world, human trafficking interrupts—and, in many cases, destroys—the lives of women and girls. And despite what you might think, Canadians aren’t immune. While many people assume that victims are trafficked into Canada, more than 90 percent of cases that occur here are, in fact, domestic in origin: Canadians are trafficking Canadians. And trafficking across the country is on the rise, including in the GTA.

Trafficking victims are lured and exploited, often through fear, violence, intimidation or coercion. The crime is often confused with human smuggling (the illegal entry of a person into a country), but trafficking has to do specifically with controlling a person for the purpose of exploiting them, usually sexually. It encompasses anyone who is forced to perform sexual acts, including prostitution, exotic dancing, massage parlour work and pornography production.

One of the regions with the highest rates of trafficking in Canada? Peel. According to Statistics Canada, Peel has a higher rate of trafficking incidents per 100,000 people than any other region in the country—and in 2017, Peel Regional Police saw the most human-trafficking charges in the region in a decade. Most victims in Canada are first trafficked when they’re 13 or 14 years old and the average age of rescue, if they’re rescued at all, is 17. Often, trafficking victims end up addicted to drugs and trapped in the sex trade for life.

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Targeted populations include those who tend to be socially or economically disadvantaged and excluded, such as Indigenous women and new Canadians, and those who move—or are lured—to large urban centres. High-school students are also frequent targets, particularly through social media, but also sometimes by peers. Because awareness is so low and public apathy so high, many women and girls don’t even realize they’re being trapped—until it’s too late.

But there’s reason to hope the situation could improve. On February 22, 2018, Ontario marked its first Human Trafficking Awareness Day, with the goal to make the province a place “where everyone can live freely and in control of their own bodies and lives.” A little over a year earlier, in November 2016, the provincial government launched a Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, naming Jennifer Richardson, a survivor, as its director. Her office is now responsible for implementing the government’s four-year, $72-million anti-trafficking strategy. Part of the plan is to dedicate services such as support and housing to Indigenous partner organizations, as well as to create a survivor-led round table, the first of its kind in Canada, to prioritize the perspectives of those with lived trafficking experiences.

Meanwhile, on the ground, women from all backgrounds are coming together to fight this crime, raising awareness, supporting survivors and prioritizing the well-being of all women and girls to help prevent trafficking before it starts. Here are four inspiring women from the GTA who are making a difference in Canada’s human-trafficking crisis.

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Shae Invidiata, Free Them

Shae Invidiata founded Free Them in 2010 to raise awareness—and funds—to abolish human trafficking in Canada. Like many other activists in this sphere, she believes one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is lack of public education—and motivation. “If you’re not aware there’s a problem, you can’t fight it,” she says.

Invidiata first became aware of human trafficking while studying in Hawaii, living on a street known as “Candy Lane” because of its child prostitutes. When she spoke with girls and women being trafficked in her neighbourhood, she pictured herself in their shoes and realized that if it were happening to her, she’d be praying that somebody would speak on her behalf, without judgement. When she returned to Canada, she started looking into the human trafficking problem within our own borders, and at how many people think it’s an issue endemic to other countries—not ours. “It happens in India, it happens in Thailand—yes,” she says. “But Canadians need to be aware that this is happening here.”

It may seem hard to believe—and there are those who prefer to pretend it isn’t an issue here, Invidiata says—but many women and girls in Canada are vulnerable. One of the many things she does to raise awareness is to speak at schools across Ontario. Almost every time, a student approaches to tell her they now realize human trafficking could be what’s happening to a friend, or even to themselves. In many ways, they just needed someone to speak out so they could be encouraged to speak up, Invidiata says. “All of the girls being trafficked have a voice, but they’ve been silenced by fear.” Education, she adds, is key. Just knowing what human trafficking is, that there’s a name for it and that there is support out there can make a huge difference.

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Katarina MacLeod, Rising Angels

When Katarina MacLeod entered the sex industry at 21, she thought she was making a choice. Like so many women and girls in the industry, she had a background of abuse, exploitation and objectification that had become so ingrained that she didn’t actually see it as abuse, but as part of her identity. “It becomes you,” she says. “It’s normal.”

MacLeod’s path out of trafficking 15 years later wasn’t easy or clear-cut. At first, she says, she couldn’t function on her own at all. She didn’t know how to pay bills, budget, cook—or even how to dress appropriately for a job interview. Hurdles like these are why it’s so important for those working in anti-trafficking to understand a survivor’s mindset, MacLeod says. These girls and women have been degraded every day. Eventually, that abuse can start to feel normal; a lack of self-worth becomes ingrained. The more they’re exploited, the harder it can be to believe they even deserve to get away, or to have a better, kinder life, MacLeod adds. She stresses that it’s important to put survivors’ voices at the forefront—otherwise, solutions won’t work.

In 2015, she founded Rising Angels, a registered non-profit headquartered in Peel that helps women and girls exit the sex trade. It wasn’t just that MacLeod felt she was the right person to help other survivors. She also saw a dearth of survivor-led organizations in her region. “I wanted to help women,” she says. “I wanted somebody to understand them. I wanted them to know I had been through it.”

Today, MacLeod says she knows that entering the sex industry wasn’t intentional on her part. “It was a lack of choice,” she says—a long pattern of forced sexualization and exploited vulnerabilities. In October 2018, she’ll mark her tenth year out of the industry. She’s still in therapy, though, and she’s still healing. She might always be. And that’s what she tells the girls and women she helps: she’s not an expert—she’s still one of them. The only difference is that she’s further along in her healing. But as someone who understands, she hopes she can help them make it there, too.

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Const. Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Peel Regional Police officer Const. Joy Brown is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella.

Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, won the Brampton Board of Trade’s annual Police Services Award in 2017 for her work with homeless and at-risk youth and human trafficking victims. In 2015, she organized a three-day human trafficking conference for 150 police officers and community partners, and she has chaired three committees focused on prevention and making victim resources more accessible.

Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational. Today, police are focusing on community rehabilitation instead of working in an enforcement role. Brown says that part of providing such “wraparound” support means that people from other regions also sit on the advisory committee, largely because trafficking is, by its nature, transient. This way, the groups can further prevent women and girls from falling through the cracks. “We continue to work as a collective,” says Brown. “It has been great having a coordinated approach to providing support.”

Together, the groups launched an awareness campaign with posters that ask, “Are you the one?” The brief scenarios that follow invite women and girls to consider behaviours that may have been normalized for them. For instance, many traffickers pose as affectionate boyfriends or friends at first, bestowing proclamations of love, expensive gifts and often drugs. That so-called grooming eventually turns to control and isolation. Victims are shut off from friends and family and made to keep in constant, supervised contact with their traffickers.

Trafficking victims also tend to be destabilized in terms of geography and community. In southern Ontario, women and girls are commonly shuttled along the Highway 401 corridor, from hotel to hotel—or, increasingly, to Airbnb rentals, which are more difficult for police to trace—all with the aim of ensuring they’re far away from home and have nobody to turn to for help. “Anybody can be a victim,” says Brown. “You can be recruited anytime.” But she, Peel Regional Police and their partner organizations are working hard to show victims that, despite what their traffickers might say, somebody really does care.

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Bonnie Harkness, 360°kids, Hope Program

Victims of human trafficking were never on Bonnie Harkness’s radar. As director of operations at 360°kids, a United Way agency that provides safe housing to at-risk youth, her focus was elsewhere. But four years ago, York Regional Police called with a concern. The police were rescuing trafficked girls and women from hotels, but had no safe place to take them. Some survivors were subsequently lured back into trafficking, while others found themselves homeless.

Until then, 360°kids had no specific programming for victims of trafficking—it didn’t realize it needed one, says Harkness. But that call made the organization see that there was a need for expansion of their services. “Of course these girls are in a housing crisis,” says Harkness—and it’s one that requires unique, tailored solutions. She jumped into action.

Today, the Hope program offers survivors housing and support for up to five years, depending on their needs. In December 2017, Hope debuted a new three-stage model geared toward healing, independence and building a better life. The first stage includes services like 24-hour staffing, survivor-focused trauma and drug counselling and programs on how to do taxes, cook and shop for groceries. Survivors can move on to become semi-independent, with staff support, then graduate to living in a subsidized apartment, transitioning more fully to a new life.

Two girls have already told Harkness that Hope is the only place they’ve ever felt cared for. That feeling of home, she says, is critical. “They could have been treated very nice by these pimps at times, but with a string attached,” she says. “We want to be clear that there are people who care and want to help them move on and be independent—with no strings attached.”

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