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Modern-day slavery: Human trafficking in Durham

Part four: The future

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

This is the fourth and final instalment in a series by The Oshawa Express on human trafficking. Throughout the month of September, this series has shared the story of Katie, a survivor of human trafficking who agreed to share her story in order to shed light on the terrible crime of human trafficking and potentially give hope to others who may be struggling. In this final part in the series, we delve into the potential solutions for eradicating human trafficking for good, whether that’s through more resources, education or a complete changing of societal attitudes towards women.

 

Katie looks down at her hands as she speaks. She sees the ghosts of all her stories blowing behind her eyes like white lace on a window.

“I still am baffled that all this stuff has happened,” she says, her head shaking slightly from side to side. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be, for one, sober, and for two, alive. I’m supposed to be dead, with the amount of things that I’ve done and have happened to me.”

She’s shared it all — the terrible trip to Calgary where she was forced to have sex with men for money, controlled by a man who she thought loved her and was her boyfriend. There were the relapses, the suicide attempts, and then finally the man who held her captive in his apartment, sick on bad drugs, hallucinating and being raped when she should have been taken to the hospital.

Then after it all, there was the torturous court process that saw her take her story to the judicial system, which resulted as a non-starter in one case, an acquittal for another, and one man still at large.

Despite the end result of the court case, the horror, the trauma and the struggle, Katie knows that she won in the end.

“I was able to stay sober and continue on with my life,” she says. “My outlook today is that if my story can help at least one person, then it wasn’t for nothing. I know that what I went through wasn’t for nothing, it was to help someone else and give them hope.”

Moving forward, many advocates, social workers and police officers working in the field of human trafficking know that one of the key pillars to change the tide against women being pulled into the sex trade is simple awareness. However, at times this can prove difficult.

Human traffickers are like rats, present, but unseen, moving from place to place and taking what’s not theirs to take.

“The clandestine nature of these traffickers and their victims means that people don’t hear about it,” says Ryan Shanks, an assistant director with Men Ending Trafficking, a group focused on spreading the word about human trafficking. He admits, for a long time, even he didn’t know that it was an issue in Ontario.

“There’s been a bit of a boom. More people have begun talking about it, a lot of groups have been formed to fight it, it’s sort of a hot topic now. However, I’m still amazed to see a lot of people just don’t know at all.”

It’s true for many in Ontario to this day, despite the fact that Ontario has the highest rate of human trafficking violations in the country.

“It’s a big problem in Ontario and Durham is seen as a hub, particularly along the Highway 401 corridor,” says Carly Kalish, the executive director of Victim Services of Durham Region. “Poverty is a major contributor and a major risk factor for being trafficked,” she adds.

This could put Oshawa right in the crosshairs for pimps looking to recruit vulnerable young women. According to the Durham Health Neighbourhoods mapping system, a regional initiative that rates Durham’s local areas on social and economic factors. As part of the program, 50 neighbourhoods were identified as a priority for being deficient in health or economic indicators. Of the seven lowest-income neighbourhoods in Durham, five are in Oshawa.

A number of factors also increase a young woman’s vulnerability, including low self-esteem, abuse, bad family relationships, or a lack of social support. Any number of these things can reprogram a young brain to seek out things they shouldn’t.

“They seek out chaos,” Calise explains. “It’s all their brains know.”

So what can be done? For some, it comes down to educating our kids before they reach their teenage years.

Calise explains that these lessons don’t need to be graphic or “fear-based”, but instead can come at the level of empowering children, building their self-esteem and teaching them about healthy relationships, boundaries, and the different aspects of consent.

In the age of #MeToo, consent has become quite nuanced as it’s been made clear from many instances, human trafficking being one of them, that yes does not always mean yes, especially when drugs, alcohol or coercion are involved.

“If we equip people to know about these things, then less of this would happen,” Calise says.

Katie now knows this first hand, and she’s taking her experiences and is working as a peer support worker. The Express is withholding the name of the agency she is working with in order to further protect her identity.

She says when survivors are attempting to heal after their time in the sex trade, having them accept that none of it is their fault is a big step.

“There’s more that comes along with consent. You can say yes, but actually mean no, and I think a lot of times they come out and they’re like, ‘it’s my fault cause I said yes,’ and I’m like, ‘no, it’s not,’ and helping them understand the four components that take part in consent.”

Those four elements are that the sexual activity must be clearly defined, the woman must be coherent to make a decision, she must be doing it under her own free will, and those first three elements must be ongoing throughout the course of a sexual relationship. Yes does not always mean yes.

A lot of this education can start at home, with parents being involved in their children’s lives.

For Laura Burch, the shelter services manager at Bethesda House, a shelter that helps survivors of human trafficking and women fleeing abuse, it almost becomes a risk not to get involved in what your children are doing.

“The traffickers are so smart in their field that it’s a safety concern to give your child privacy,” she says, adding that this is especially prudent when it comes to what they get into and who they talk to online.

Taking a step back, before the lectures, the classroom and the lessons, the educational direction that has the potential to stop human trafficking can start with simple values, in particular, how society treats women.

“As long as men are using their wealth to leverage access to things they have no right to, the problem is not going away,” Shanks says. “We need a real shift in our culture, in our society, before this is going to disappear.”

That shift may be upon society already.

On a large scale, Hollywood is seeing a renaissance when it comes to women speaking out against sexual violence and manipulation. In Canada, due to reporting completed by The Globe and Mail, police services across the country, including Durham, are reviewing and changing the way they deal with sexual assault complaints. As a result, more women are coming forward to speak out against their abusers. Throughout the first portion of 2018, violent crime stats in Durham Region increased by 13 per cent, driven in large part by an increase in historic reports of sexual assault.

However, within the field of human trafficking, there still remains an unwillingness or a fear of some women in the trade to cooperate with police. The fear can largely be driven by pimps who warn against potential consequences of speaking with officers. However, the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit are finding other ways around that.

During investigations, the unit will bring along social service workers and sometimes, even other survivors of human trafficking to speak with girls in the hotel rooms. These operations work almost in the opposite vein of the John sting detailed in Part 2 of this series. Instead of setting up a fake ad, the Durham police respond to real ads as interested customers and try and make a connection with the girl in the room, and convince her to leave.

It’s not as easy as it would seem.

“A lot of the times, it’s not successful and if they are of a certain age, they’ll say, ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m working by myself’, which is not usually the case,” says Det./Sgt. Ryan Connolly, the head of the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit, adding that if the girl is over 18, there’s nothing they can do if she’s unwilling to cooperate, and due to updated prostitution laws, she cannot be taken in for other reasons either.

Katie explains that at times, it’s simply impossible to ask for help. The fear instilled by a pimp can be overwhelming.

“A lot of people will say, why didn’t you leave? I think it’s really important to understand that I could have left, they weren’t there 24/7, they weren’t hiding in a closet while I had a client in the room,” she says. “You can’t just leave. They frighten you, they scare you and they work really hard in doing so.”

Connolly says the police partnerships with social agencies and survivors can sometimes break through that barrier.

“Having the (survivors) on scene can give us that credibility for her to go in there and say to someone who is being trafficked, ‘listen, the police are here to help you. They helped me, and that’s how I got out.’ That is helpful in building the relationship with the police and the victim,” Connolly says.

Earlier this year, Oshawa MPP Jennifer French joined the DRPS unit for a ride-along during one such investigation, and was able to witness this impact firsthand.

“The girl was not expecting an intervention, was not expecting the police when they were there, but they were all receptive to the kindness, the compassion, the offer of services, and also to talk to the police,” French says, who attended, along with a social worker and another survivor. Along with building a connection with the police, the social services also work to attend to any of the women’s basic needs while they have her in the room.

“Every girl was receptive to having those kinds of conversations because you have to imagine too, they’re isolated, they only have their controller and this constant stream of assault and abuse,” French says. “So to have someone give you some toiletries and compassion and let you know that there is help and that not everyone wants to hurt you, there’s power in that message.”

To take that partnership to another level, within the last year, more than 30 organizations from across Durham, including the DRPS, have joined together to form the Durham Region Human Trafficking Coalition, bringing together individuals with backgrounds across the social services spectrum to discuss issues, brainstorm solutions, and even find practical solutions to problems agencies are facing with clients at the present moment. It’s a go-to place for finding a solution for any survivor of human trafficking, whether they need housing, mental health supports, health care, financial aid. Whatever it is, someone around the table is bound to put their hand up and say they can help.

For the DRPS, the group has proved instrumental, in not only helping presently, but also freeing up time so that resources can be put where they need to be in order to combat human trafficking in the future.

“We’re not social workers, we can’t do a lot of the things these other groups can. So everyone in the group, in the coalition, brings something to the table,” Connolly says, adding that it allows the DRPS to put their focus where it needs to be.

“It’s more important that we put our time and resources into going after pimps and the Johns and just set up the meeting and bring the victim to the support services,” he says.

For Shanks, whose father Larry Shanks with Safe Hope Home, another shelter geared towards helping survivors of human trafficking, was instrumental in setting up the coalition. It’s significant for the fight to end trafficking to see so many organizations working together.

“I was absolutely amazed by what I saw there,” he says. “The group of people who have joined the coalition are such an amazing group who are not talkers, they’re all doers.”

French has also been involved with the coalition, and is currently seeking a forward path to assist in any way she can at the provincial level. In 2016, the Ontario government launched it’s strategy to end human trafficking, which led to the creation of the provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, triggered a cross-sector review of training related to human trafficking in an effort to identify any gaps, and also included the passage of the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, which increased protection for survivors.

Most recently, the DRPS received approximately $10,000 in order to create a video campaign aimed at raising awareness around human trafficking. Funding from the Attorney General’s office also helps fund the Victim Quick Response Program run by Victim Services, which can provide money to survivors for any number of things from basic needs like food or shelter to more complicated things like glasses or counselling. There’s even the chance to receive up to $10,000 for recovery at a treatment facility.

“I’m glad that there is some money coming for this awareness campaign, that’s great, but I would like to figure out what it actually looks like at the ministry level and I’d like to be involved as much as possible in that,” French says, noting that she continues to work with the DRPS to figure out what a potential solution could look like.

“It’s not so much a piece of legislation that needs to happen to facilitate that, but I’m trying to tease that out because we work within the confines of the system that we know. We don’t necessarily know how we can improve unless we’re asked,” she says.

Small steps. Small steps that can eventually lead to a solution. A solution that could eventually lead to the end of stories like Katie’s. A story that saw her raped, and abused when all she was seeking was love. Love that she wasn’t able to find anywhere else.

Until now.

“Still today, sometimes I look in the mirror when I get up and I don’t really like what I see, but I make a phone call. I have people that can remind me. I don’t need them to tell me how pretty I am. I need them to tell me to look at what you’ve accomplished, that this is just a little hiccup,” Katie says. “I don’t need that validation, I can give that to myself.”

 

If you, or anyone you know is involved or you think is involved in human trafficking, the DRPS urges you to reach out. In Durham Region, the police have set up a human trafficking hotline at 1-888-579-1520 ext. 4888. The public is also encouraged to call this line with any information related to human trafficking. Also, survivors of abuse are reminded that you do not to be involved with the police in order to get help from Victim Services. Victim Services can be reached at 905-579-1530 ext. 3400.

 

BEHIND THE SCENES

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

This four-part series is the end result of nearly six months of reporting, countless interviews and hours of research in order to dig up the statistics on this growing crime.

I also had the opportunity to join the Durham Human Trafficking Coalition for two meetings in order to see firsthand the impact they can have. It’s inspiring and absolutely heart-warming to see so many people in one room who care about finding a solution to ending human trafficking and also support those who are struggling.

Throughout the course of my interviewing for this series, which included police, social agencies, and of course, Katie, I began to notice a common trend among the people working in the field.

For many, they were unaware of the scope of the problem, and were shocked, surprised or frightened when they finally got a glimpse of the true face of human trafficking. A face that is morphing and changing by the day.

I now count myself among them.

This series was launched by one interview with Det./Sgt.Ryan Connolly, the head of Durham’s Human Trafficking Unit. The Oshawa Express ran a story on the unit in March of this year, which was mainly supported by a sit down I did with Connolly. At that time, I had no idea the scope of the issue.

When I began to dig, the story just went deeper and deeper and I soon realized that there was no way it could be contained in a single story. It is for that reason that this series has taken up so many pages and inches of ink over this past month.

I want you, reader, to take a moment and think about that. If you haven’t read the previous parts of this series, I encourage you to do so, because the only way we are going to ever get to the end of this nightmare created by human trafficking, is if everyone educates themselves.

Many people don’t even know what human trafficking is, sometimes not even those who are in it.

“I was trafficked and I had no idea. I thought I had a shitty boyfriend,” Katie told me.

If there is one message to leave these pages with, it is to take what you have learned and share it with others. If you’re a parent, talk with your kids about the dangers of the Internet, talk to them about their self-esteem, and if they are young men, teach them the value of women. If you’re not a parent, take this story and share it with your family, share it on social media, just keep the message out there.

I also want to address that it is also isn’t strictly young women. While Durham has not seen a market for young boys in the sex trade, there are young men who get pulled into this dark world as well.

So, the sooner that children learn their worth and learn to treat others with respect, love and compassion, the sooner we can keep them from falling into the traffickers dangerous hands.

It’s up to us, and it’s clear that now is the time to change.