The Catholic Register
September 17, 2023
Human Trafficking

The hidden pandemic

Human trafficking is an unchecked evil lurking in the darkness all around us

The hidden pandemic

Human trafficking — “a scourge upon the body of Christ,” according to Pope Francis — is said to generate some $150 billion in profits for traffickers each year.


  • avatar
    Quinton Amundson
    The Catholic Register

The fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.

The second largest form of organized crime on Earth behind the drug trade.

Forty- to 50-million people around the planet are currently entrapped in human trafficking, or modern slavery.

According to the International Labour Organization, this “open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ,” in Pope Francis’ words, generates $150 billion in profits every year.

Unambiguously, these facts and figures affirm this societal evil devastatingly pervades the world like a global pandemic.

Human trafficking operates largely unchecked in the darkness in part due to the many fallacies stubbornly embedded in the public psyche.

One such misconception is how it is often conflated with human kidnapping.

Before this year’s smash hit movie Sound of Freedom, the last anti-trafficking feature that hit the cultural zeitgeist was the original Taken movie, starring Liam Neeson, in 2008. This picture fed the false myth that victims get abducted into servitude and are always transported to another country where they experience their psychological and physical bondage.

Such misleading, yet influential mass media thinking plants a common assumption that trafficking is an elsewhere concern, not a severe local issue. 

“The way that it is depicted in these films can do more harm than good in the Canadian context,” said Julia Drydyk, the executive director for The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. “It is really framed as an issue of underground kidnapping, abducting people off the street and having outsiders come in and save victims. In Canada, the reality is very different. It looks far more like intimate-partner violence. Most victims knew their trafficker before they were exploited.”

Statistics Canada’s Trafficking in Persons 2021 report, released in December 2022, backs Drydyk up. The report documents that 91 per cent of victims of police-reported human trafficking from 2011 to 2021 knew their accused trafficker, while the remaining nine per cent were abused by a stranger. A third stated they were oppressed by an intimate partner. 

This popular kidnapped-across-the-border falsehood does not hold up against another statistic: 93 per cent of sex trafficking victims identified in Canada are citizens of this land.

'Canadians are being trafficked in every large, medium and small community across the country'

-- Julia Drydyk

Historically, sexual trafficking is the most prevalent form of modern-day slavery in Canada. The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking’s 2019-2022 infographic indicates that 1,029 of the 1,500 incidences (68.6 per cent) of trafficking identified through its national Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline were sexual exploitation cases. Twenty-two per cent were unspecified (334) and six per cent were forced labour situations (88).

In truth, perpetrators of both sexual exploitation and labour trafficking are adept at playing the long game to lure or recruit their target. They can often masquerade as a potential romantic partner or the promising employer offering a dream job and life. In the case of the former, the predator can hide their true nature for months so they can manipulate their victim into believing they are in a trusting relationship.

“So often it does start with the boyfriend effect,” said Joy Smith, the former Conservative MP whose work in Parliament led to stronger laws against trafficking. She established the Winnipeg-based The Joy Smith Foundation in 2011 to combat trafficking through education.

“They target somebody either online, at a mall or a sporting event,” said Smith. “They’ll get talking with a young person and tell them how beautiful they are. They will get interested in the child’s interests. They seem to be very friendly.

“Over time, the (eventual victim) becomes very attracted to this person,” said Smith. “When they become involved romantically, the trafficker does things to them that they haven’t had done to them before, they give them gifts they cannot afford and take them to places they haven’t been to before. Gradually, the victims get separated from their support systems such as their family, friends, school and sports teams. This gives the trafficker the power and control. Once they have their (victim) to themselves, then they force them to service men (or women) with sex and receive money from that.”

It’s a lucrative business. Controlling and ultimately enslaving one person can fetch an offender an average bounty of $280,000, claims the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada.

Traffickers prey on individuals from vulnerable population groups. Youth on welfare, people suffering from mental health or substance-abuse disorders, the socially and economically disadvantaged, migrants and seasonal workers, members of the LGBT community and Indigenous women and children, particularly in Canada, are some of the common subjugated individuals.

Drydyk said Canadians are “being trafficked in every large, medium and small community across the country.” However, her organization has found some key trends in recent years.

“Research that (The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking) published in 2020 showed the existence and impact of human trafficking corridors in Canada,” said Drydyk. “These are the transportation routes that traffickers are using to connect their victims to various commercial sex markets, while also keeping them isolated from friends and family and any type of community support services. This reinforces their dependency on their trafficker. But these corridors connect to all major transportation routes across Canada.”

Canada’s busiest highway, the 401, which stretches across heavily populated southern Ontario, is a prime example.

“We know that the 401 in Ontario is used systematically because there are so many cities off the 401,” said Drydyk.

Girl not for sale
Official numbers won’t tell the whole human trafficking story in Canada because victims are hidden from the public and most crimes go unreported. (Photo from iStock)

Another phenomenon the centre uncovered is young women from Quebec who solely speak French being recruited and then flown to Alberta to be sold into the sex industry. Drydyk said the trafficker makes more money for inserting “an exotic French woman into the commercial sex industry.”

Nova Scotia perpetually ranks as the Canadian province with the highest per-capita rate of police-reported trafficking occurrences (5.3 incidents per 100,000 people in 2021). The coastal location makes it prime terrain to recruit people to be trafficked to the various metropolitan commercial sex industry markets in Toronto, Montreal and Moncton.

Statistics Canada indicates that 42 per cent of trafficking incidents in the Atlantic province are Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) offences. IRPA violations in Nova Scotia often take the form of immigrants being coerced into being trafficked inter-provincially through fraud, threats or outright coercion.

Smith, when asked to discuss the trafficking hotspots, simply responded, “my friend, all of Canada is a hot spot.”

There is a line on The Joy Smith Foundation website that reads “less than a kilometre from where you live today, someone is being trafficked.”

“We have pulled kids out of rural areas where you’d think there would be no trafficking,” said Smith. “Traffickers use the small hotels that are off the grid. Wherever there is a highway or an airport, the metropolitan cities across the country. You name it. Western Canada, Eastern Canada, Central Canada is just a hot spot of human trafficking. It is the second most lucrative crime.”

Official numbers won’t tell the whole story. Indeed, Statistics Canada data shows there were 552 instances of human trafficking reported to law enforcement in 2021, a decline of one from the 553 tabulated in 2020. If a person views these figures, but chooses not to read the whole report, they could easily arrive at the assumption that trafficking is not a Canadian problem. Less than 600 cases in a country with 40 million people? A total of 3,578 incidents since 2011? Those figures do not seem so bad.

Statistics Canada always includes a disclaimer in its annual reports that there are severe challenges in measuring human trafficking. The 2020 report, co-authored by Shana Conroy and Danielle Sutton of the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, features an entire subsection detailing the limitations and roadblocks inherent in this work. 

Human trafficking statistics

“Human trafficking victims are often isolated and hidden from the public,” wrote Conroy and Sutton. “Some health-care workers report a lack of training in identifying and assisting individuals in potential trafficking situations and victims may be unwilling or unable to report for various reasons. They may, for example, have a general distrust of authorities, be fearful or ashamed, lack knowledge of their rights in Canada, experience language barriers or have a desire to protect their trafficker.”

Drydyk corroborates organizations desiring to help survivors must be armed with more resources and training to undo the damage of traffickers so these women or men can experience new, fulfilling chapters of life. 

“There is a lot of training support and capacity building that needs to be done to give these organizations the tools to effectively serve victims of human trafficking,” said Drydyk. “Folks who have experienced trafficking often have very complex needs. They often present very high levels of trauma and require many kinds of programs and services.”

A rehabilitated, deprogrammed mental outlook can provide the survivor the courage needed to step forward to chronicle their story 

Skepticism toward receiving justice from authorities is another reason for underreporting requiring the most nuanced explanation considering “less than 10 per cent of people who call the national hotline feel comfortable approaching the police,” said Drydyk.

Sofia Friesen, the Canadian programs manager for the Ally Global Foundation anti-trafficking charity based in Vancouver, said one of the substantial reasons why trafficking victims do not share their story with law enforcement is they sometimes have been forced into committing crimes.

'Knowledge is power'

“They have potentially engaged in illegal activity under the control and manipulation of their trafficker,” said Friesen. “There is a fear that charges will be pressed against them as well, whether that is related to the distribution of drugs or actually recruiting others into trafficking.”

Friesen added that while “there are some amazing people working in this space on the law enforcement side,” she thinks “overall there has not been enough done to educate all law enforcement officers across Canada.” It is little known, in her estimation, just how “harmful a process it can be to disclose a story like that and to not have it received in the most trauma-informed way.”

Potential retaliation from a trafficker upon his or her release from imprisonment is another fear that holds a survivor back from seeking justice.

Unfortunately, even the prospect of securing a jail sentence against a human trafficker in the first place is very difficult based on precedent since 2011. Trafficking in Persons, 2021 states “one in eight completed human trafficking cases result(ed) in a guilty decision for a human trafficking charge” in an adult criminal court from 2010-11 to 2020-21. In 81 per cent of completed proceedings “the most serious decision rendered for a human trafficking charge was a stay, a withdrawal, a dismissal or a discharge.”

Conversely, a guilty verdict was attained 31 per cent and 47 per cent of the time for sex trade and violent offence charges, respectively.

Completing a human trafficking court case is also a longer slog, taking about 382 days while sex trade and violent offence cases each take between 150 to 180 days. The reason is that criminal court cases with a human trafficking charge had an average of 17 charges included in the indictment. Comparably, sex trade cases averaged five charges and violent offences, four.

Smith considers education as “one of the best weapons” to disrupt trafficking.

“Communities, churches, schools all must work together to learn about trafficking and give the education to the young people in front of them, so they won’t be trafficked by anybody.”

It is out there, but your average Canadian just does not know it.

“It is so prevalent,” said Smith. “But the fact of the matter is people do not believe it happens in their own district. They do not realize how easy it is for a child to be exploited over the Internet.”

American entrepreneur and speaker Jim Rohn said once upon a time that “ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is poverty. Ignorance is devastation. Ignorance is tragedy. Ignorance is illness. It all stems from ignorance.”

Perhaps “knowledge is power” is the better proverb to adopt.

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