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Daphne Bramham: Human trafficking is pervasive and largely ignored in Canada

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The pervasiveness of human trafficking shocked the chief commissioner of the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. It should shock us all into action.

The pervasiveness of human trafficking shocked the chief commissioner of the inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. It should shock us all into action. Kamionsky/Getty Images/iStockpho

“After 22 years as a judge, I thought I knew about human trafficking,” Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the inquiry into Canada’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, said this week.

“But I was shocked by the nature and the extent. I had no idea it was such a pervasive problem. I’m still shocked to the point where I’m thinking that some of the cases I had in court  … did I miss the signs?”

In the massive and disturbing report released last week, much has been made of the conclusion that Canada is guilty of genocide.

Genocide is certainly an uncomfortable word. But so are many of the others in the 1,247 pages of the final report (including the 121-page executive summary and a 47-page, supplementary report on genocide). Among those are prostitution, sexual exploitation and trafficking, which are inextricably linked to the vulnerability of girls and young women because of poverty, low levels of education and disconnection from families and communities.

Human trafficking has been an issue for more than two centuries. In 1886, a newspaper reported on trafficking of “Indian girls.”

“Police blamed First Nations men for running an active racket on young women rather than investigate the crime,” according to the MMIWG inquiry’s report.

Rather than stopping the trafficking, it goes on to say, police began more actively enforcing prostitution clauses in the Indian Act that criminalized the women.

“First Nations women and girls were targeted because they failed to live up to a normative standard that imposed non-Indigenous beliefs and expectations about women that came from very patriarchal and oppressive societies in Europe,” the report says. It argues that stereotype — both then and now — helps police and others discount and justify exploitation and sexual violence of Indigenous women and girls.

While Buller calls what she heard shocking, the empirical data is lacking. Not all police agencies are required to report to the RCMP’s Human Trafficking Coordination Centre and the centre’s data doesn’t indicate which cases are still under investigation.

But here’s what we do know. In 2016, Canada had its highest recorded rate so far of human trafficking,  with one police-reported incident for every 100,000 population. Statistics from the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey suggest that 94 per cent of human trafficking is domestic, with women and girls accounting for 95 per cent of the victims.

Nearly three quarters were under the age of 25, while a quarter were under 18.

And nearly half of the trafficking victims were Indigenous women and girls, although they are only four per cent of the population.

Arrests are rare, successful prosecutions even rarer.

The U.S. State Department’s most recent Trafficking in Persons report released last June noted that for the third consecutive year, Canada reported fewer convictions. That report also noted that Canada had failed to provide comprehensive data on investigations, prosecutions, convictions or victims. And, more tellingly, the American report said Canada didn’t have sufficient emergency housing for trafficking victims.

The data gaps reflect difficulties in tracking victims across provincial and territorial borders. The inquiry’s report notes the patterns or “city triangles” such as Saskatoon-Edmonton-Calgary-Saskatoon, known routes along which victims are shipped that often include stops close to resource industries which have a large, transient and mainly male workforce.

What’s particularly troubling is that trafficking particularly targets girls and young women, setting them on a potentially dangerous and deadly course.

Predators stalk Indigenous girls aging out of government care at bus depots and airports, Diane Redsky, executive director of Winnipeg’s Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, told the inquiry.

She noted that at the time of her testimony, children aged out of foster care at age 16 in six provinces.

Alaya M. said she was an easy target. At 12, her social worker gave her the option of staying in her community or going to Winnipeg. Alaya chose the big city and two days later was handed a bus ticket.

“That was probably the best $13 or $14 they (the child and family services department) ever spent to get a kid out of their care, not understanding that the effects and the trauma that would be bestowed upon that $13, $14 bus ticket.”

Right off the bus, an Italian man befriended her, took her for a ride, raped her, handed her $5 and bought her a cup of coffee. She’d never had sex before and didn’t know what a condom was.

Other witnesses talked about pimps recruiting Inuit girls at airports and outside group homes, youth detention centres and schools.

Most became victims out of necessity. They had no family to support them and no one else to turn to when they needed money for housing and food. Then, to mask the pain, they used drugs and soon were selling sex to feed their addiction.

The inquiry commissioners’ recommendations all point to the long-term solution to human trafficking, which is to attack the root causes of its victims’ vulnerability — poverty, childhood trauma, homelessness, disconnection from family and community.

In the meantime, they’re recommending prevention programs and resources for those who have been exploited.

The prevalence of domestic human trafficking should shock us all into action. And while ending it may not be possible, curbing it most certainly is.

dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter: @bramham_daphne

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