Human Trafficking Around the World and in Your Back Yard

What do you think of when you think of Dundas Square at the heart of Toronto’s downtown?  Bright lights, big city?  Billboards and consumerism?  Restaurants, theatres and outdoor concerts?

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Julie Neubauer thinks of human trafficking and sexual exploitation because Dundas Square is one of the busiest locations in Canada for recruiting girls into the sex trade.  Julie is Toronto’s Manager of Human Trafficking Services at Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter that serves over 9000 young people annually.  They manage an active case load of 72 human trafficking and sexual exploitation clients.  Human trafficking is defined as “recruiting, harbouring, transporting or controlling the movement of a person for the purpose of exploitation.”  Most often, it is sex trafficking.


At a presentation to the audience of a screening of Sold, a film about human trafficking in Nepal and India, Neubauer brought that film home, and taught us how to look at our own neighbourhoods through what she calls “HT glasses.”  Take a moment to observe the people milling about at Dundas Square and you are likely to see an older man speaking to a group of young women.  Chances are, that’s the start of a luring process.  Human trafficking is not something that happens only in other countries and across loose borders.  It is all around us in the city, at shopping malls and in school yards, and along Ontario’s highways.  Neubauer told a chilling story of being on the road with her sons for their hockey tournaments and seeing signs of human trafficking at the restaurants, hotels and motels along the 401 corridor.  It is all around us, all the time.  For more on how to detect signs of trafficking go here.

According to Jennifer Keeler, Co-ordinator of Trillium Health Partners Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Team at Chantel’s Place, 94% of women who are sexually exploited in Canada are from Canada, and 63% are Canadian citizens in Ontario.   It is very much a home-grown problem.  Youth are greatly overrepresented in sex trafficking.  According to Statistics Canada, between 2009 and 2014, 47% of victims of police-reported human trafficking were between the ages 18 and 24, while one-quarter (25%) were under the age of 18.  One girl can make her trafficker up to $250,000 a year, making human trafficking a highly lucrative and low risk crime for the trafficker.  Conviction rates are low.

The typical victim is a young girl with low self-esteem, who is lured and groomed by a Romeo-figure:  “At Covenant House, we will often hear a young girl in our care recount how she was convinced or coerced by her boyfriend to sell herself for sex. Soon, he trades romance for violence and she is terrified to leave. Traffickers follow a familiar pattern of psychological manipulation and control that includes luring, seducing, grooming, and then terrorizing victims. A recent study found that over a third of victims were recruited by men they considered to be their boyfriends. Another 25% were lured through friends, most often victims themselves.”

What can you do?

These are all very sobering statistics that brought the threat of human trafficking to our doorsteps.  It is not surprising that during the Q & A, one audience member asked, “What can we do?”

The answers surprised me, because these are women on the front lines of helping victims of human trafficking.  I expected them to ask for concrete help in the form of donations or volunteering.  Instead, they emphasized that one of the most important ways to help is to be part of changing the culture that glamourizes sex for sale.

  • Speak out against discrimination.
  • Speak out about the portrayal of women as objects.
  • Speak out about the early sexualisation of girls in all aspects of our culture.  Neubauer mentioned seeing toddler t-shirts that say “future trophy wife.”  Protest the sale of these kinds of messages that create a foundation for seeing female bodies as objects for sale.
  • Speak out about aspects of our culture that threaten girls’ self-esteem.  Traffickers target girls who are made vulnerable by low self-esteem.
  • Be aware of the issue.  This article, from the Globe and Mail’s series on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, gives a useful overview of the problem.  This chilling video from the Toronto Star describes how men prey on vulnerable girls.
  • Be aware of the services available to victims.  Chantel’s Place is one of 35 sexual assault treatment centres in Ontario.  Covenant House has a community-based, five-step approach to helping young victims of sex trafficking: prevention and early intervention, crisis intervention, stabilization, transition and independence.
  • Stay informed about the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking.  In the news currently is a case in Peterborough with two teenaged traffickers.  A change to Ontario legislation will allow victims to sue their traffickersThis man, who branded his victims with a tattoo of his name, was caught because someone who witnessed a fight between the man and a woman called 911.  It takes a special kind of arrogance and stupidity to brand women with a tattoo of your name, but I suppose it makes the work of the prosecution easier.

Another question was, “Are there happy endings?”  The answer was “yes,” but they don’t come neatly tied up in a narrative arc as they do in the movie.  Happy is variously described as partial victories, one-day-at-a-time survival, incremental progress.  Happy endings, says Neubauer, take time.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Sold ends with smiles.  In the film, western photographer Sophia, played by Gillian Anderson, gives the girls who have been rescued from the sex trade a candle.  It is to light their story, she says, a story that is theirs to tell.

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The screening of Sold was a remarkable way to spend International Women’s Day.  The film drew attention to a global issue, and the speakers shed light on how the problem exists on our own city streets.

Kudos to Julie Neubauer and Jennifer Keeler who were articulate and compassionate advocates for the work on the front lines of this issue.  Enormous thanks, too, to The Junior League of Toronto and to Debbie Trevelyan in particular, for the invitation to the screening of Sold.

For more about Sold, starring Niyar Saikia and featuring Gillian Anderson, go here.

For more information on Covenant House, go here.

For more information on Chantel’s House, go here.

For more information on The Junior League of Toronto, go here.

To donate to Covenant House, go here.

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