For an entire year, Simone Bell rarely left her Ottawa apartment. “I was too scared to go anywhere,” she says. “I was just so afraid to talk to anybody.”
Bell’s ordeal began in 2007. Just 21 years old at the time, she was forced into sex trafficking by an acquaintance of her then boyfriend. Isolated from her family and friends, she was beaten, drugged and raped. Her trafficker threatened to harm her loved ones if she didn’t do exactly what he said. For four years, he sold her daily to men along the trafficking corridor that stretches from southwestern Ontario to western Quebec.
Bell eventually managed to escape, fleeing back to her family and beginning her long road to healing. She is now a victim support worker in downtown Ottawa. Her office on the 14th floor overlooks the city where she was first trafficked. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says.
Human trafficking refers to the recruitment, transportation, harbouring or control of a person and their movements, typically for sexual or labour exploitation. Across Ontario, police forces are warning it is among the fastest growing crimes in the province. A 2013 RCMP report identified Ontario as a “major hub,” with Ottawa, Montreal and the Greater Toronto Area forming a circuit used to shuttle victims between Ontario and Quebec. In Ottawa, more and more victims are being identified, thanks to increased policing efforts and decade-long awareness campaigns by local organizations. And yet, these same groups are again sounding the alarm, pointing to what they say is a persistent lack of specialized victim services. Too often, it seems, women and girls hoping to leave their trafficker see no way out.
For more than a decade, Marsha Wilson has been on the frontline of the fight against human trafficking. The long-time director of Ottawa’s St. Joe’s Women Centre clearly remembers the phone call she received in August 2011 from the Ottawa Police Service, asking for assistance. “She was 17 years old,” Wilson says, referring to the city’s first recognized victim of domestic trafficking. Police had been tipped off by a hotel desk clerk; the girl’s trafficker had reportedly offered to let him have sex with her in exchange for a free room. The case ultimately led to the city’s first conviction for domestic human trafficking. Besides helping the girl find a safe place to stay while in Ottawa, St. Joe’s gave her bus tickets, a new pair of shoes, and an airline ticket back home to Windsor. Since then, Wilson says her organization has provided similar assistance to about 25 victims of human trafficking.
But the number of trafficked persons who never receive help is far higher. In its landmark 2014 report, the local community organization Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans (PACT)-Ottawa sketched the extent of the problem. The report identified 140 trafficking victims between June 2013 and April 2014. A little more than 70 per cent of these victims were between the ages of nine and 25. Ninety per cent were Canadians from the Ottawa area. “And those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” says PACT-Ottawa spokesperson Pauline Gagné. “The more people start seeing that human trafficking does exist, the bigger the problem seems to get.”
Sgt. Jeff LeBlanc oversees the Ottawa Police Service’s human trafficking unit. Launched in October 2013 as a two-year pilot project, the unit continues to operate while the police force considers whether to make it permanent. But for LeBlanc, the unit’s results speak for themselves. Over the course of its official two-year lifespan, the unit conducted 241 investigations. “Prior to that, the numbers would have been pretty close to zero,” says LeBlanc. One investigation alone last September resulted in 76 charges against one trafficker. “Once you start looking, you really start finding things.”
Sex trafficking is among the most lucrative criminal activities worldwide, generating billions of dollars annually. And so it is perhaps not surprising that it has also taken root here. Gagné puts it plainly: “The thing is, with humans, you can sell and resell and resell, whereas with drugs and arms, you sell them once and you don’t have them anymore.” It is not uncommon for pimps in Ottawa to collect between $500 and $1,700 a night from a single victim. With traffickers often “owning” three girls, they can potentially make upwards of $545,000 annually.
But while traffickers are lining their pockets, there is evidence that organizations leading the charge against human trafficking are starved for funding. In February, one of Canada’s only two safe houses specifically for trafficking victims was forced to close its doors. The Servants Anonymous Facilitated Exit (SAFE) House in Calgary had been relying on bridge funding and donor contributions since 2013, when the province decided to pull its funding.
In its 2015 annual international report on human trafficking, the United States Department of State found that government funding in Canada to support specialized services for trafficking victims was insufficient to meet victims’ needs. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne admitted as much recently, acknowledging that human trafficking has “not had enough attention.” Meanwhile, the federal government’s national action plan to combat human trafficking is set to expire later this month. Announced in June 2012, the plan allocated $25 million over four years with the stated goal to support organizations that assist victims. And yet, the plan only provided up to $500,000 annually for victim services across the country. In its report, the State Department recommended that Canada “significantly increase specialized care and reintegration services available to trafficking victims.”
Zaneta Miranbigi couldn’t agree more. As chair of the volunteer-based Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking, she helps co-ordinate the delivery of frontline services to trafficking victims across the city. The organization brings together representatives from roughly 30 service providers, including victim services, law enforcement officials, health care providers, housing agencies and other groups. “The problem is funding: nobody has funding,” says Miranbigi. “It limits what we can do. It limits our reach. Things get done at a turtle’s pace.”
Echoing recent findings from the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s national task force on sex trafficking, Miranbigi says Ottawa has no long-term specialized services specifically for persons who have exited a trafficking situation. Compared to victims of domestic violence, for example, trafficking victims often suffer from severe substance abuse issues that need to be addressed along with the trauma from their trafficking experience. The task force surveyed 534 organizations across Canada on services that are needed but not available. Tellingly, safe houses and addiction supports topped the list: both are sorely lacking in Ottawa, says Miranbigi.
Back at St. Joe’s Women Centre, Wilson agrees. “It’s a big challenge. The only place we can put them is in a shelter for a day or two, then you have to move them,” says Wilson. “You don’t want to put them in a hotel or a motel, because they’ve been trafficked through some of these places.” Even women’s shelters can pose challenges for trafficking victims, who — because of their affiliation with the sex trade — often face stigma and discrimination from other women.
Drawing on her own experience, Bell says these service gaps can leave trafficked girls and women feeling they have no other choice but to stay with their trafficker. “Sadly, leaving that situation can put victims in a worse situation than they’re already in,” she says, adding she was lucky to have a good family to go home to — unlike many of the survivors she helps. “You’re abused. It’s terrible. It’s scary, but it becomes familiar to you. Then somebody says to you, ‘I’m going to help you. You’re being trafficked.’ And you think, ‘So what do you have for me?’” Without renewed federal and provincial funding, it seems the answer will too often remain “not enough.”
The Ontario government has announced plans to unveil in June an “overarching” anti-human trafficking strategy. Service providers hope this might pave the way for a more comprehensive and co-ordinated response, including the specialized supports they say are lacking.
For Bell, it’s a matter of reassuring victims they will receive the care they need. “There are a ton more survivors than we’re seeing come through our door,” she says. Her message to victims is unequivocal: “You just really need to know that at the end of the day, no matter how many times you feel you’ve f—cked up, you always have somewhere to come back to. That’s all it takes.”
Though service providers might argue that more funding wouldn’t hurt either.