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Modern-day slavery: Human trafficking in Durham

Part one: the crime

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Katie has a lot of stories about her rock bottom.

For years, all she wanted was compassion. Another person to hold her hand, wrap their arms around her, caress her cheek and say I love you, say those three words and really mean them.

Instead, she was met with men who abused her, raped her and sold her for sex. It indoctrinated her into a life of darkness and twisted her brain into believing that these men, the same men who forced her to have sex for money then took it all away, actually cared for her.

The need to be loved eventually was washed out by the need to just end it all. However, even death proved as elusive as love for Katie, just another failure.

“It’s really difficult to wake up and be like, ‘shoot, it didn’t work, again,’ and then feeling like a failure and trying again,” she says. “It’s almost like there were invisible bars. I wasn’t locked up, but I was trapped.”

Tragically, Katie’s story of human trafficking, one which thankfully has a happy ending, is only one of the hundreds that take place across Canada every year, and the numbers are rising.

Since 2010, cases of human trafficking have increased approximately 580 per cent in Canada, from less than 50, to nearly 350, according to figures from Statistics Canada. It’s a startling figure, made even more so by the fact that the crime is widely underreported.

Closer to home, Durham is a hotbed for traffickers, a common stop along the Highway 401 corridor which serves as a main artery for pimps looking to cash in on vulnerable women. In 2017, Durham Regional Police dealt with 27 cases of human trafficking, and partnered with other police forces on several others.

Throughout the month of September, The Oshawa Express will be taking an indepth look at all aspects of this crime, which along with being widely underreported to police, also flies critically under the radar of the general population. It’s out of sight, out of mind in the worst possible way.

Over the next four weeks, these reports will share Katie’s story, whose full name has been withheld by The Express to protect her identity, while also looking at the crime, the causes, the police response, and all of those compassionate people in Durham who are doing everything they can to help women like Katie.

The goal of this series is to display the full picture of human trafficking in Durham Region, and to show that not only is this happening across Ontario, but sometimes, right outside your front door.


The real trouble began in Marathon, Ontario.

Katie, along with her boyfriend and his friend were on there way out west, a trip that in Katie’s mind was almost meant to be a fresh start.

She’d been working as a waitress, but a combination of her drug habit and a lack of showing up for work, led her to being fired. Soon after, her boyfriend offered to take her out west.

“I thought finally, something good is happening for me, this is really exciting,” she says.

She was 24, and the man who she thought was her boyfriend, she’d met in a trap house — a house for drug users, dealers and their orbit of friends to hang out, use, and hide from society.

This man had spotted her across the room, almost like a fairy tale beginning. Except those enticing eyes weren’t pulling her into a fairy tale, but pulling her into a nightmare. This moment was the beginning, the start of Katie’s path to being trafficked. It’s known in human trafficking circles as luring.

“He came and he looked at me and he said, ‘What are you doing here? Come into my room, come with me,” she recalls. “I was wearing next to nothing and he kept eye-contact. He wasn’t checking me out or looking at my body, he was asking me questions and talking to me like I was a human being, and I hadn’t experienced that in a  very long time.”

For several years, Katie had already been in and out of working in massage parlours in her hometown of Scarborough, the kind where a girl can make a little bit of extra money if she’s willing to do a little extra. She’d been doing it on and off since she was 14, fuelled by a bad drug habit. However, after her mother passed away when Katie was 20-years-old, the trauma was too large. Her family tried to help; her father, her three brothers, they all tried to help Katie get off the path she was following.

“I couldn’t stop, it didn’t matter who you were, what you were trying to give me, what kind of help you were providing. I was so depressed and traumatized from my mom passing that I wasn’t ready,” she says.

When she met the boyfriend, a drug dealer, the timing was right in all the wrong ways. Katie’s vulnerability was on full display. In other words, a perfect target for a trafficker.

“He said all the right things. I had very low self-esteem, very low self-worth. I didn’t like myself. So pretty much anybody who would show me love or affection, I would just go with it because I didn’t know how to do that for myself,” she says.

And while she may not have been able to do that for herself, that part of her brain that provides the good thoughts, the happy thoughts, the thoughts that would have told her she was strong, confident, and beautiful, all those parts were shut off. The boyfriend became those thoughts.

“He took care of me, he bought me stuff, he took me for dinner, he introduced me to his friends, he didn’t ask for anything, he didn’t try to sleep with me, (he was) very affectionate,” Katie says. “All I wanted my whole life was to be loved.”

For those working in the field of human trafficking and assisting the survivors, this is the second stage in the trajectory that eventually leads to a woman being trafficked; it’s called grooming.

The trip out west was a pivotal point in Katie’s relationship, and her tragic introduction into the seedy world of human trafficking.

In Marathon, their car was pulled over by police with weed smoke billowing out the windows, and all three were arrested.

When the officers asked her to identify the men she was with, Katie complied. It was then that things took a left turn.

“I said one of them was my boyfriend and the other one is his friend,” she says.

What was the boyfriend’s name?

“I told him the name he’d given me and it turned out that wasn’t his name,” she says. “I got a feeling in my stomach that was like, oh shit.”

The officers questioned her story, telling her that the men had said she was just a stripper they’d picked up somewhere along the road. The sinking feeling returned again, two sides of her brain battling to try and comprehend how this man who purported to love her, could do such a thing. However, a bigger part of her brain wanted to trust him.

“I knew something wasn’t right, but at the same time, this guy had taken such good care of me that I was almost like, who cares?” she says. “I smiled and went along with it.”

Katie even admitted the drugs were hers, but in the end, the group was released, and the boyfriend’s friend ended up taking all the rap for the drug charges. The part of her brain that wanted to believe that everything was going to be okay grasped at this fact, lunging at it like a drowning person at a life preserver, these men really were her friends.

Practically the second they left the station, the mood in the car turned sour, and Katie’s world moved from the honeymoon (grooming) stage, into the next realm of trafficking; coercion.

Being arrested clearly hadn’t been part of the boyfriend’s plan, but it may have worked out better than he could have imagined, as Katie’s vulnerability was now paired with another, more powerful emotion, guilt.

“Now they could manipulate me,” she recalls. “I felt save, I felt loved, I felt appreciated, and at this point he knew that and he took advantage of it. He said you’re going to have to work now, you’re going to have to pay for (his friend’s) lawyer, you’re going to have to pay for this and that. So I said okay.”

Things moved very quickly after that. When they arrived at their final destination, Calgary, their first stop was to a lingerie store to buy Katie “work outfits”. The second stop, a hotel, where her picture was taken, her ad was posted, and her time in hell began.

“They made me work day and night, on my period, (they controlled) what I could eat, when I could eat, when I could sleep, (for) how long,” she recalls. “I remember waking up sometimes super early in the morning to them yelling at me, saying we missed the morning rush, it’s all your fault, now you have to work all day and all night.”

For an entire month, they moved Katie from hotel room to hotel room, she saw client after client, with all the money going back to the boyfriend, who would usually be lingering somewhere nearby.

Her drug habit kept her dependent as the boyfriend also controlled her intake. Whether it was cocaine, meth, heroine, she took whatever she could get, and it just became another tool for her manipulation. A manipulation that would wrap her brain into a gordian knot, halting any ability to really grasp and think about her reality.

“He was trying to ween me off drugs, so he’d always praise himself when I’d go a day without using,” she says. “I’d relapse and he’d say you’re a no-good junkie whore, and then after I’d start crying he’d hold me and say I love you, I’m sorry, I just want you to get better.”

“He’d really mess with my brain,” she says. “My brain was rewired so whatever he said, that’s how it was.”

After a while, she began to get vocal. She complained, she begged, she wanted to go home. With the birthday of her deceased mother approaching, Katie used it as a crutch to stand on and miraculously was allowed to go home to Toronto, ending her nightmarish visit to Alberta.

Even after it all, after being forced to sleep with other men for his benefit, Katie felt compelled to protect him.

“When we finally came back to Toronto, I was watching the news and the guy who I thought was my boyfriend, his face and his name came up on CP24, wanted for a whole slew of different things, kidnapping, forcible confinement, guns, drugs,” she says. “But my instinct was to protect him and care for him, because even though he treated me like shit, he still took better care of me than anyone ever has.”

Once again, that side of her brain won out, and she hid him in her apartment. That was, until he turned himself into the police.

However, Katie’s story doesn’t end there, as not long after, she would return to the sex trade voluntarily.

But we’ll get to that.

For Laura Burch, the shelter services manager at Bethesda House, a Durham Region women’s shelter that helps many survivors of human trafficking and women fleeing abuse, despite the trauma and the nightmarish circumstances of human trafficking, many women return to the sex trade voluntarily after getting out. Many times, it comes down to money.

“There’s usually a factor that brings them into this world, into the sex trade, whether it’s financial, (or) they have a kid to feed,” Burch says. “The question is, are they keeping their money?”

For women like Katie, they rarely see the money that comes from their client’s pockets, and the amounts they are actually making can be staggering, earning as much as $5,000 a week for their traffickers.

“A lot of young girls, when they come out and they’re rescued out of it, they talk about the financial aspect and they have no concept of how much money they’re making because it comes and goes and it’s so quick, the exchange, and then it’s taken,” Burch says.

For Katie, she didn’t see a penny of the money exchanged for her.

“They kept all the money,” she says. “After every client, they’d come in, take the money and go back out. It was awful.”

It’s a staggering demand, one that Burch says needs to be the focus if there is ever going to be an elimination of stories like Katie’s from ever happening again.

“If there was no need by men, then there would be no demand. I want to say it’s kind of simple, we need to start focusing on the Johns,” Burch says.


In Part 2 of The Express’s series on human trafficking, we delve into the efforts of the Durham Police to combat this crime and go undercover with the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit on a sting operation targeting men trying to purchase sex with underage women.



Behind the writing

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

I sipped my coffee on the patio of the Oshawa cafe, waiting for Katie to arrive.

My heart was restless, sliding in and out from beating incessantly to calm as I sipped from the paper cup of black caffeine.

I knew the interview was going to be heavy. I knew that the things I was asking Katie to relive had the risk of retraumatizing a woman who had already been through so much.

Flipping through my notebook, I checked my watch, picked up my coffee cup and stepped inside. I looked around, and spotted a woman sitting in an armchair checking her cell phone. She was thin, well-dressed, with nice long hair hanging down her back. Katie.

She stood up with a wide smile on her face and shook my hand. Her grip was strong and her smile had a nice way of turning up the corners of her eyes, allowing the light in and shining back like tiny diamonds.

There was something else in those eyes as well, something that I couldn’t pinpoint at first.

We moved to the back of the coffee shop and sat at a large table. I took a deep breath, and we started talking.

The big question for me was, how do you even broach this topic? I knew what she’d been through, but I needed the details, the details that generally aren’t talked about.

I spent the first bit of the interview asking about her role now, where she works with other survivors of human trafficking, helping them to reconcile their own pasts and begin to love themselves.

As she talked, I tried to reconcile what I saw in the woman before me with what I knew.

It was then that I realized what it was that stood in her eyes. It was there every time she glanced at me to answer a question. Strength.

When we finally got into the gritty details of her story, there were several times where I had to take a deep breath. There were times when I was even close to tears.

As a reporter, you try and distance yourself from the story. Your job is to get the information, collaborate the story, and write it in an engaging and informative way.

However, with a story like this, it can be extremely difficult. I’m only human.

Learning that there are people out in the world who would do such unforgivable things to a woman like Katie is sometimes hard to grasp. It turns your thoughts black and tarnishes your view of human beings with a black tar that is sometimes hard to wipe out of your mind.

Yet, her story also motivated me. I knew that I had to get it right. I knew that telling this story would have the potential to help others. At the very least, it would illustrate to the Durham community how awful this crime is, and perhaps motivate others to learn about how prevalent this is, and bring awareness to this crime.

Over the next three parts of this story, I will tell more of Katie’s story, which, honestly, gets worse before it gets better.

With this first column, I simply want to thank Katie for taking the time and the energy to share her story with me, and for trusting me to tell it the right way.