For many, the words human trafficking conjure images of smuggling people across borders; so much so that the Ontario government includes a note about it as part of their Human Trafficking Action Plan.
A better description of human trafficking is exploitation, said Cora McGuire-Cyrette, executive director of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) and member of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sand Point First Nation).
While labour exploitation or “forced work” is one form of human trafficking, it is the sexual exploitation aspects of human trafficking that is the focus of outreach, crisis and trauma services from ONWA.
It is the sexual exploitation of children, of adults, of children exploited until they become adults and do not know any other life but the use of their sexuality by another as a tool for profit.
Exploitation by family members, by those who come to a community promising a new life to those without hope, to those who meet with vulnerable people living in urban centres but in precarious situations.
In one out of every three cases, it is a former or current partner of the victim.
Accurate numbers are a challenge to put together as they rely on data from police-reported incidences of human trafficking, reporting which McGuire-Cyrette says doesn’t often occur due to a mix of shame, lack of faith in the abilities of law enforcement, or the belief that because there is sex-work often involved means that there is also consent and therefore blame - particularly when it is an adult woman. Therefore, there are not many reporting their circumstances to police.
Of the numbers that are available, Statistics Canada shows that between 2009 and 2018, police services in Canada reported 1,708 incidents of human trafficking; an average annual rate of 0.5 incidents per 100,000 population.
Nova Scotia (1.0 incidents per 100,000 population) and Ontario (0.9 incidents per 100,000 population) recorded average annual rates higher than the national average. No other province or territory recorded an average annual rate above the total Canadian average.
Ninety-seven per cent of these victims of police-reported human trafficking were women and girls. Almost half (45 per cent) were between the ages of 18 and 24. Nearly three in ten victims were under the age of 18 (28 per cent), while the remainder were 25 years of age or older.
But again, that is police reported. It also does not contain any statistics on the race of the survivors.
But if it has been established by the Inquiry on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Girls and Women that Indigenous women are 16 times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women, then it can easily be extrapolated that Indigenous women and girls are more susceptible to human trafficking.
The Ontario Government agrees, and has some supports geared to indigenous women and girls like the Speak Out: Stop Sex Trafficking education program and the ONWA-led Indigenous Anti-Human Trafficking Liaison (IAHTL) Program.
But ONWA saw that action plan was still insufficient – and most of all, not based on the words and needs of the survivors themselves.
And so, with funding from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, ONWA has developed and expanded the Aakode’ewin – Courage for Change Program across Ontario to address unique needs of the disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls affected by human trafficking.
“About 10 years ago, when we started to build a relationship with survivors, we realized that there were no services for them,” said McGuire-Cyrette. “It was very clear and evident that regular programming and services does not meet their needs, the situation and issues that they’re facing.”
Based on a comprehensive engagement process with more than 3,360 community members and 250 self-identified survivors of human trafficking, the program is designed to meet their needs, including initial and immediate safety from their current situation, 24/7 crisis response, harm reduction and safety planning, referrals to healthcare, counselling, and addiction services, as well as “programming focused on capacity building, empowerment and culturally-specific healing.”
“The expansion is about ensuring that we have dedicated workers, youth outreach workers, to assist them in crisis, because the majority of what we are seeing for unfortunate trends is that the majority are youth,” said McGuire. “Indigenous girls and youth are at risk due to two factors: their race and their gender.”
The program will allow for anyone who wishes to report their exploitation to do so with an advocate by their side. “This is what they (the survivors) said they need,” said McGuire-Cyrette, “because when you have somebody there, you’re more likely to be believed; you’re more likely to get access to quality services that you need.”
She says it is the undercurrent of racism that changes the understanding of true exploitation as well – especially when someone has reached an age where it is thought they would be able to consent or escape a bad situation on their own.
“If you’re under 18, it’s very clear exploitation. But there is no clear line or boundary when somebody is in sex work, but it’s exploited.”
The difference between a woman choosing sex work as her trade and a woman at the mercy of a “pimp,” you could say.
McGuire-Cyrette also notes the long history of the colonization and patriarchal aspects of the shame that has been placed on Indigenous people – especially women – that results in the dehumanization of Indigenous women and girls.
“If you don’t see somebody as being human, you can do what you like to them without having any moral obligations or thought process,” said McGuire-Cyrette. “What we're seeing is more along that racist line of thinking, that people deserve this, or they've chosen it.”
She says it is time to focus on the safety of Indigenous women.
“This is something we're seeing right now in the national action plan; they need to prioritize Indigenous women’s safety. They're more focused on jurisdiction – but sexual issues and violence does not have jurisdictional boundaries.”
If you would like more information about human trafficking, you can visit the Ontario Native Women’s Associate at onwa.ca, or visit the Ontario Government supports and services page.