While it has become increasingly known across Canada that there are over 500 missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women who are still unaccounted for, when it comes to Aboriginal girls dropping off the map at the hands of traffickers, the issue is yet to make a headline, much less receive a prevention campaign.
In 2007 Anupriya Sethi, a policy analyst for the Families and Caregivers Strategic Policy Branch at Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC), released a study titled Domestic Sex Trafficking of Aboriginal Girls in Canada: Issues and Implications. The study looked at not the trafficking of adult women but of that of girls under the age of 18.
Though Sethi sent the study around to various major media outlets, both online and in print, and despite the fact that the report detailed the sexual enslavement of Aboriginal girls across the country, it was never reported on.
“The purpose of the study was to call it trafficking and to frame it in that way because it is considered prostitution,” said Sethi. According to the report, the issue is not getting much attention due to widespread racism and racial stereotypes about Aboriginal women as they are frequently seen as “willing to take up sex work,” as opposed to being coerced into it.
“The biggest thing that distinguishes prostitution and sex work is the coercion part,” said Sethi.
According to the United Nations, “Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction or fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payment or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over other persons, for the purpose of exploitation.”
For as much as there are no actual figures on the domestic-sex trafficking of Aboriginal girls in Canada, as Sethi’s report showed, which was derived from information obtained from frontline workers throughout the country, it does not mean it is not happening. As there is no national level data that tracks the transient Aboriginal population and their trafficking in the sex trade within the country and no group be it governmental or otherwise that does so, it is impossible to know what the statistics would be.
In lieu of this, the report instead suggests that examining the numbers of Aboriginal girls involved in actual prostitution to “throw some light on the extent of the issue.” First Nation girls are exponentially overrepresented in the sex trade and Sethi’s report detailed how they made up 14% – 60% of it across various regions in Canada. In Vancouver, 60% of sexually exploited youth are Aboriginal and in Saskatoon, children as young as 11 and 12 were being forced into the sex trade.
Girls are recruited into trafficking through various different means. Though coercion and deception are the underlying commonalities, girls can be recruited anywhere from schools, bars, the Internet, while hitchhiking, by gangs, by their boyfriend, by other girls and even by the least suspect of individuals, their own families.
“There are communities in the North where First Nations girls are sexually exploited and initiated into prostitution by their male and female relatives,” according to the report.
As girls travel outside of their communities they become vulnerable to traffickers and cases have been documented where even girls who become something as innocuous as dancers fall prey to these men because they will travel from province to province to perform in a world they are unfamiliar with.
A particularly alarming scenario was presented to Sethi by an Aboriginal frontline worker who works in these communities and said she was seeing a lot of this.
“A couple of key informants identified airports as the point of recruitment in big cities like Montreal, which are witnessing a growing movement of Aboriginal girls, especially Inuit, from Northern communities. Traffickers often know someone in the community who informs them about the plans of the girls moving to the city. Upon their arrival at the airport, traffickers lure the girls under the pretext of providing a place to stay or access to resources. In the words of a key informant working as an Aboriginal outreach worker, “Girls tend to believe in the promises of the traffickers as they are young, naive and vulnerable in a new and big city. They are unsuspecting of the motives of the traffickers, since they belong to communities that have a culture of welcoming strangers.’”
Sethi described the traffickers as being very organized despite the fact that they are very underground. Sometimes they even have knowledge of the girls’ flight details.
Once they become absorbed into the network, girls find themselves being moved from city to city to keep them off the radar and isolated so that control can be exacted over them.
“Traffickers impose various forms of violence – physical, emotional, economic and sexual – to initiate girls into sex trafficking and to maintain control over them. Girls are forced to go with johns, not use condoms, and live in poor and unhygienic conditions. Traffickers often keep the earnings and the identification documents of girls to minimize their chances of escape; girls have negligible or limited access to resources such as welfare services or addiction treatments,” said Sethi in the study.
Before the actual issue of trafficking can be addressed however, the conditions that lead these girls into danger have to be addressed. Whereas both Canada and the U.S. tend to approach the issue from a crime-and-punishment stance by prosecuting the traffickers when they are caught, the vulnerabilities of the victims that lead them into the situation initially is not part of the equation. Despite the fact that trafficking has been a hot topic in parliament over the last few years, this is largely the result of pressure from the U.S. government which is looking to protect their borders and not individuals. Furthermore, any dialogue that has occurred within parliament on the subject of trafficking has been in relation to girls coming in from other countries and not Canada’s Aboriginal girls.
“You can always look to gangs and substance abuse but that comes in much later. It all begins with the root causes so if you want to readdress trafficking, we have to address poverty,” said Sethi.
As 52.1 % of all Aboriginal children in the country are living in extreme poverty, it is easy to say that poverty alone could contribute to the problem but Aboriginal youths have so many more strikes against them that lead to trafficking. From the legacy of the residential-school system to a lack of awareness, acknowledgment and understanding of sexual exploitation, racism from the general population, violence, intergenerational substance abuse, gaps in service provisions, discriminatory policies and legislations, the rising popularity of gangs and the kind of isolation that can stem from being in a remote community, add it up and the results are devastating.
According to Sethi, something as basic as a girl’s desire to escape her difficult situation at home will often lead her right down the path of being exploited by another individual. Unfortunately there are so few services available to them that they can easily become trapped.
According to Sethi, the first step in addressing the issue is to acknowledge and recognize seriousness of the problem on a governmental level as so far that has yet to be done.
“I have not seen this addressed as an issue yet, there are definitely research gaps,” said Sethi since, without concrete numbers, the issue can be brushed aside under the guises of it not affecting a large enough portion of the population.
Sethi also recommended that Canada establish a national strategy for domestic trafficking, bridge the policy-practice gap, create culturally relevant services and promote capacity building in Aboriginal communities amongst other recommendations regarding the acknowledgement of Aboriginal culture.
In Quebec, the International Bureau for Children’s Rights in the document, Strategic Action Plan for the Protection of Victims of Child Trafficking in Quebec, had various suggestions for the province.
The IBCR not only suggested that the general population be schooled on
the trafficking of Aboriginal children but that Aboriginal children themselves be educated about the situation as a means of prevention.
Though some prevention campaigns exist in other provinces, they don’t in Quebec.
The IBCR also suggested that “professionals who are likely to come into contact with child-trafficking victims should receive training on trafficking,” and cultural-sensitivity training.
Though there are members of government who are currently working on committees that are determined to bring this issue into the public’s view and address it, trafficking is an age-old issue as is the marginalization of Canada’s Aboriginal population.
Expressing her frustration with the constant demand for actual numbers when discussing trafficked Aboriginal girls, Sethi said, “I often wondered, isn’t one a bit too many? Do we really have to have 3000 or 5000 people affected?”