Ask the Experts: Is human trafficking happening in the GTA?

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on September 25, 2018. It has been edited and condensed for length.

All around the world, human trafficking interrupts—and, in many cases, destroys—the lives of women and girls. And despite what you might think, Canadians aren’t immune. While many people assume that victims are trafficked into Canada, more than 90 percent of cases that occur here are, in fact, domestic in origin: Canadians are trafficking Canadians. And trafficking across the country is on the rise, including in the GTA.

Trafficking victims are lured and exploited, often through fear, violence, intimidation or coercion. The crime is often confused with human smuggling (the illegal entry of a person into a country), but trafficking has to do specifically with controlling a person for the purpose of exploiting them, usually sexually. It encompasses anyone who is forced to perform sexual acts, including prostitution, exotic dancing, massage parlour work and pornography production.

One of the regions with the highest rates of trafficking in Canada? Peel. According to Statistics Canada, Peel has a higher rate of trafficking incidents per 100,000 people than any other region in the country—and in 2017, Peel Regional Police saw the most human-trafficking charges in the region in a decade. Most victims in Canada are first trafficked when they’re 13 or 14 years old and the average age of rescue, if they’re rescued at all, is 17. Often, trafficking victims end up addicted to drugs and trapped in the sex trade for life.

Targeted populations include those who tend to be socially or economically disadvantaged and excluded, such as Indigenous women and new Canadians, and those who move—or are lured—to large urban centres. High-school students are also frequent targets, particularly through social media, but also sometimes by peers. Because awareness is so low and public apathy so high, many women and girls don’t even realize they’re being trapped—until it’s too late.

But there’s reason to hope the situation could improve. On February 22, 2018, Ontario marked its first Human Trafficking Awareness Day, with the goal to make the province a place “where everyone can live freely and in control of their own bodies and lives.” A little over a year earlier, in November 2016, the provincial government launched a Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, naming Jennifer Richardson, a survivor, as its director. Her office is now responsible for implementing the government’s four-year, $72-million anti-trafficking strategy. Part of the plan is to dedicate services such as support and housing to Indigenous partner organizations, as well as to create a survivor-led round table, the first of its kind in Canada, to prioritize the perspectives of those with lived trafficking experiences.

Meanwhile, on the ground, women from all backgrounds are coming together to fight this crime, raising awareness, supporting survivors and prioritizing the well-being of all women and girls to help prevent trafficking before it starts. Here are four inspiring women from the GTA who are making a difference in Canada’s human-trafficking crisis.

Shae Invidiata, Free Them

Shae Invidiata founded Free Them in 2010 to raise awareness—and funds—to abolish human trafficking in Canada. Like many other activists in this sphere, she believes one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is lack of public education—and motivation. “If you’re not aware there’s a problem, you can’t fight it,” she says.

Invidiata first became aware of human trafficking while studying in Hawaii, living on a street known as “Candy Lane” because of its child prostitutes. When she spoke with girls and women being trafficked in her neighbourhood, she pictured herself in their shoes and realized that if it were happening to her, she’d be praying that somebody would speak on her behalf, without judgement. When she returned to Canada, she started looking into the human trafficking problem within our own borders, and at how many people think it’s an issue endemic to other countries—not ours. “It happens in India, it happens in Thailand—yes,” she says. “But Canadians need to be aware that this is happening here.”

It may seem hard to believe—and there are those who prefer to pretend it isn’t an issue here, Invidiata says—but many women and girls in Canada are vulnerable. One of the many things she does to raise awareness is to speak at schools across Ontario. Almost every time, a student approaches to tell her they now realize human trafficking could be what’s happening to a friend, or even to themselves. In many ways, they just needed someone to speak out so they could be encouraged to speak up, Invidiata says. “All of the girls being trafficked have a voice, but they’ve been silenced by fear.” Education, she adds, is key. Just knowing what human trafficking is, that there’s a name for it and that there is support out there can make a huge difference.

Katarina MacLeod, Rising Angels

When Katarina MacLeod entered the sex industry at 21, she thought she was making a choice. Like so many women and girls in the industry, she had a background of abuse, exploitation and objectification that had become so ingrained that she didn’t actually see it as abuse, but as part of her identity. “It becomes you,” she says. “It’s normal.”

MacLeod’s path out of trafficking 15 years later wasn’t easy or clear-cut. At first, she says, she couldn’t function on her own at all. She didn’t know how to pay bills, budget, cook—or even how to dress appropriately for a job interview. Hurdles like these are why it’s so important for those working in anti-trafficking to understand a survivor’s mindset, MacLeod says. These girls and women have been degraded every day. Eventually, that abuse can start to feel normal; a lack of self-worth becomes ingrained. The more they’re exploited, the harder it can be to believe they even deserve to get away, or to have a better, kinder life, MacLeod adds. She stresses that it’s important to put survivors’ voices at the forefront—otherwise, solutions won’t work.

In 2015, she founded Rising Angels, a registered non-profit headquartered in Peel that helps women and girls exit the sex trade. It wasn’t just that MacLeod felt she was the right person to help other survivors. She also saw a dearth of survivor-led organizations in her region. “I wanted to help women,” she says. “I wanted somebody to understand them. I wanted them to know I had been through it.”

Today, MacLeod says she knows that entering the sex industry wasn’t intentional on her part. “It was a lack of choice,” she says—a long pattern of forced sexualization and exploited vulnerabilities. In October 2018, she’ll mark her tenth year out of the industry. She’s still in therapy, though, and she’s still healing. She might always be. And that’s what she tells the girls and women she helps: she’s not an expert—she’s still one of them. The only difference is that she’s further along in her healing. But as someone who understands, she hopes she can help them make it there, too.

Const. Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Peel Regional Police officer Const. Joy Brown is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella.

Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, won the Brampton Board of Trade’s annual Police Services Award in 2017 for her work with homeless and at-risk youth and human trafficking victims. In 2015, she organized a three-day human trafficking conference for 150 police officers and community partners, and she has chaired three committees focused on prevention and making victim resources more accessible.

Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational. Today, police are focusing on community rehabilitation instead of working in an enforcement role. Brown says that part of providing such “wraparound” support means that people from other regions also sit on the advisory committee, largely because trafficking is, by its nature, transient. This way, the groups can further prevent women and girls from falling through the cracks. “We continue to work as a collective,” says Brown. “It has been great having a coordinated approach to providing support.”

Together, the groups launched an awareness campaign with posters that ask, “Are you the one?” The brief scenarios that follow invite women and girls to consider behaviours that may have been normalized for them. For instance, many traffickers pose as affectionate boyfriends or friends at first, bestowing proclamations of love, expensive gifts and often drugs. That so-called grooming eventually turns to control and isolation. Victims are shut off from friends and family and made to keep in constant, supervised contact with their traffickers.

Trafficking victims also tend to be destabilized in terms of geography and community. In southern Ontario, women and girls are commonly shuttled along the Highway 401 corridor, from hotel to hotel—or, increasingly, to Airbnb rentals, which are more difficult for police to trace—all with the aim of ensuring they’re far away from home and have nobody to turn to for help. “Anybody can be a victim,” says Brown. “You can be recruited anytime.” But she, Peel Regional Police and their partner organizations are working hard to show victims that, despite what their traffickers might say, somebody really does care.

Bonnie Harkness, 360°kids, Hope Program

Victims of human trafficking were never on Bonnie Harkness’s radar. As director of operations at 360°kids, a United Way agency that provides safe housing to at-risk youth, her focus was elsewhere. But four years ago, York Regional Police called with a concern. The police were rescuing trafficked girls and women from hotels, but had no safe place to take them. Some survivors were subsequently lured back into trafficking, while others found themselves homeless.

Until then, 360°kids had no specific programming for victims of trafficking—it didn’t realize it needed one, says Harkness. But that call made the organization see that there was a need for expansion of their services. “Of course these girls are in a housing crisis,” says Harkness—and it’s one that requires unique, tailored solutions. She jumped into action.

Today, the Hope program offers survivors housing and support for up to five years, depending on their needs. In December 2017, Hope debuted a new three-stage model geared toward healing, independence and building a better life. The first stage includes services like 24-hour staffing, survivor-focused trauma and drug counselling and programs on how to do taxes, cook and shop for groceries. Survivors can move on to become semi-independent, with staff support, then graduate to living in a subsidized apartment, transitioning more fully to a new life.

Two girls have already told Harkness that Hope is the only place they’ve ever felt cared for. That feeling of home, she says, is critical. “They could have been treated very nice by these pimps at times, but with a string attached,” she says. “We want to be clear that there are people who care and want to help them move on and be independent—with no strings attached.”

3 tips for leading philanthropic change at your company

Our guest blogger this week is James Temple, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at PwC Canada. He provides oversight to ways the firm is embedding social, environmental and economic integrity into the fabric of its business. In 2012, he was named one of the world’s top CSR practitioners by the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence and was an inaugural Notable.ca Young Professional of the Year. He has also been featured in articles and videos for TED, the Globe and Mail, Forbes, Strategy Magazine and Canadian Business. In this Imagine a City post, he gives us tips on how you can lead philanthropic change at your company.

James Temple
Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer
PwC Canada

Our region is home to corporate citizens who are leading innovation across all sectors of our economy. But today’s corporate leaders are about much more than advancing bottom lines, they’re also the engines that drive community building and social change by harnessing the passion and leadership capabilities of their work forces from the inside, out.

As organizational structures evolve, so do the demands of savvy employee brand ambassadors. The landscape of philanthropy and employee fundraising is changing and we need to make a business case for strengthening knowledge and leadership through workplace philanthropy.

Here are a few leading practices that can help you adapt to philanthropic movements within your business:

1. Make philanthropy real and make it relatable 

Each of us can play a role in helping to re-imagine and align philanthropic efforts with our organization’s purpose and your values. Don’t be afraid to share stories about how your personal engagement in philanthropy aligns with your values and has had a positive impact on your leadership journey.

By building community capabilities into your personal brand, you can help to teach others how philanthropy can support better relationship management with teams and clients, enhancing trust between and across teams, the business and community. Philanthropy is accessible and it’s personal.

2. Re-frame conversations around community impact versus dollars raised

There is significant public interest in charitable transparency and increased scrutiny on the amount of money that charities are allocating towards fundraising and administration. We need to find a better proxy to help build trust between employee donors and community agencies who need funding to keep the lights on to do their work.

Studies suggest that people respond better to measures that focus on social impacts—for example, how many lives have been saved as a direct result of donations, or how many children get a healthy breakfast as a direct result of funding a meal program. By communicating progress in this way, we take the pressure of the balance sheet and can go well beyond the ‘fundraising thermometer’ to help rationalize why people should join a community movement.

3. Provide options that make room for time, talent and treasure

People can give back in many ways and effective corporate citizens make room for people to give in a way that’s right for them. Every contribution counts. From empowering people to volunteer to learn more about how a community organization makes a difference, to looking for ways to help people share their professional skills pro-bono, the value of a contribution can be amplified by helping people choose which options are the optimal mix for their personal circumstances. What’s most important? Creating momentum and personal ownership so a person believes they can be the change that they are a part of.

Want to learn more about how PwC and other leading corporate citizens are blazing a trail when it comes to philanthropy in the workplace? Visit United Way’s Keeping Good Company website and follow PwC and United Way on May 16 when PwC will be hosting a conversation in partnership with United Way at the Economic Club of Canada that digs into this very topic.

Jeffrey Staples: The sky’s the limit

When you walk along the streets of Toronto, or drive along the Gardiner Expressway, one word comes to mind, growth. The city is rapidly expanding north, east, south and west, and when you look up; it even stretches towards the sky.

Toronto is a unique cultural centre for Canada. The streets of Chinatown bring tastes of the Orient, the cheers from Little Italy erupt in soccer season, and who can resist some window shopping along Queen Street West.

Imagining how Toronto can be better requires looking at what it is doing right. The key to Toronto’s success has been embracing all the little communities that come together to make it whole. When we value and nurture individuals they thrive, when we help and support a neighbourhood they thrive, and when we interact and learn from everyone’s experiences we all thrive. Toronto can be a world example in showing how acceptance and freedom can allow the seeds of every person to blossom into healthy mixture of ideas and attitudes.

I imagine for Toronto a streetcar ride laughing with a stranger from India. I imagine for Toronto a jog through High Park with a friend from Spain. I imagine for Toronto a cooking class run by a family from Kenya. Organizations like United Way enable every person to reach for their opportunity to make Toronto a better place to live. When we all work together, the sky’s the limit.

Karina Aparicio: A city with no limits

What I imagine for Toronto is a city with no limits. A city that is culturally diverse and self accepting of all differences no matter of age, race, religion, beliefs and gender. A city that knows how to ground themselves and help those who are in need of help without expecting anything in return; a city that sees all classes of people as equal, stigma no longer branding any person.

What I imagine for Toronto is a city where we are interconnected with each other; person to person, hand to hand and heart to heart. That together we as a city will raise above discrimination, hate, differences, oppression, and poverty. We will enrich ourselves with knowledge, education, and acceptance; so that we may lead as a city so that other cities may be able to follow our steps and create more positive change.

Because as one small city, the good we do today will make a big difference in our lives for a better tomorrow and perhaps the rest of the world.

Karina Aparicio is a hopeful student striving to become a social worker, to help bring a positive change in today’s society. 

Lisa Donnelly: Opening the door to a new identity

Toronto is a city with the world at its doorstep, and the welcome mat says “Bienvenue” in hundreds of different languages. It’s a city of diversity and dynamism – an ever-changing network of people who keep the country on its toes.

Toronto is also a place where change is not only needed, but necessary. I imagine a city with people who stand shoulder to shoulder, equal, instead of one behind another.

I imagine a city where children grow up with access to education, both in the classroom and in the community.

I imagine a city where poverty isn’t a way of life and social problems don’t leave people shrugging their shoulders.

I imagine a city where marginalization, abuse and discrimination aren’t the themes of our daily news stories.

Toronto can be an example for the world – we can show others that active engagement of citizens, governments and corporations can help drive real change in our city. Let’s open the door to a new identity for Toronto, and have the courage to walk through it, together.

Lisa Donnelly works in emergency management for Enbridge Gas Distribution.  She is a proud advocate for United Way and has gotten involved by volunteering as a Team Lead for her department’s fundraising campaign and at this year’s CN Tower Climb.

Joanna Diorio: Give a little respect

I am proud to be a Torontonian. Having travelled to many cities across the globe, there isn’t one that I feel more at home in.

That being said, I imagine more for Toronto. More green space, more support services for at-risk youth, more affordable housing, more efficient public transit.

When it really comes down to it, I imagine more respect. I imagine everyone getting off the streetcar saying thank you to the driver. I imagine making eye contact and smiling to the business woman on Bay Street and the young man getting off the subway at Wilson station.

It’s not that hard to imagine…but it does take each and every citizen’s commitment to respect one another and take responsibility for their actions. It’s the little things that count.

Joanna Diorio is a young professional, community volunteer and true patriot.

Ambar Aleman: A Toronto for all women and girls

Imagine a city where young women and girls had equal opportunities to thrive. A city where women and girls’ energy, skills, resources, intelligence and passions were fostered through equitable programs, structures, institutions and systems that addressed key social issues facing women and girls everywhere. That’s the Toronto that I work towards because women and girls’ rights are at the centre of socioeconomic and political change everywhere.

When the disparity between gender minimizes, systemic and institutionalized oppressions decrease and our Toronto has so much potential to accomplish and unravel. I’m committed to an inclusive Toronto where women and girls’ full and equal participation in society is normalized and is part of our core fundamental values.

Imagine Toronto, a progressive and champion city that supports women and girls from diverse communities and backgrounds and addresses the intersectional links between all forms of oppressions. A Toronto where all its residents work towards the elimination of systemic barriers to end violence, poverty, gender inequality, racism, housing, homelessness so that we can all have a better tomorrow. This is the Toronto that I not only imagine but that is being realized through the thousands of individual and collective efforts happening every moment our city breathes.

My vision for Toronto is one where social justice is promoted and fully sustained by its entire people. Just imagine: our city, our home, our Toronto.

Ambar Aleman has been actively involved in social justice and young women activism since her early 20s.  As part of her work, Amber leads the development of national girls and young women’s leadership programming and coordinates advocacy initiatives and public policy research.  Amber is a young feminist passionate about politics, culture and languages, civic engagement, youth leadership, traveling and personal finance.

Kyla Kelley: Stepping out of our comfort zones

I imagine a city where we are not afraid to support each other.

I imagine a city where streetcar riders will not uneasily look the other way as a group of teenagers verbally taunt a fellow passenger.

I imagine a city where others will join me as I challenge the group of youngsters to show respect to all people, rather than avert their eyes and bury deeper in their phones and papers as they do now.

I imagine a city where the taunted man will sit up straight and thank me, rather than looking down and telling me not to bother supporting him, that “it’s really not a big deal”.

I imagine a city where we are brave enough to admit it IS a big deal, and to actually do something about it – not by blogging and commiserating in the safety of our peer groups, but by actually acting when these situations present themselves.

I imagine a city where all citizens are proud to step out of their comfort zones and support each other at EACH and EVERY opportunity.

Kyla Kelly is a married mother of one and expecting her second. She works in downtown Toronto and used to live in Roncesvalles but chose to leave Toronto when she started a family. Why? She felt she couldn’t afford to buy a home in a neighbourhood which felt safe for her family and where neighbours would look out for one another. 

Bushra Nabi: Hearing and valuing the voices of youth

This city is a place that I call home. I’ve seen the best and worst of it. I’ve spent over a decade working towards making this city better. I am an activist, a youth worker and a counsellor for those I feel are underprivileged.

I imagine a Toronto where people actually hear the voices of the youth and look past their appearances. I know of a place–and perhaps it’s far away–where the youth are motivated, confident and making change in their neighbourhood through the encouragement of those that have supported and inspired them. With funding put into youth mental health and arts programming, I imagine a Toronto that is strong, independent and competent.

I love my city but there is no denying even the best needs work. We the people can make this happen if instead of hate we gave love and instead of failure we saw the best in people. If teachers would stop being biased and if we gave our youth a place to discuss, teach, learn and create then we would learn more from them than that which we have taught them.

Imagine a Toronto where we don’t underestimate the young but instead we shut up and listen to what they have to say. A youth counsellor once told me that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  But nobody wants to listen to the youth because everyone is proud and they think they know best.

Bushra Nabi is a warrior for social change in Toronto, working and volunteering with youth affected by violence and trauma in high priority neighbourhoods. She seeks to empower them through art therapy and writing so that they may flourish greater successes.

Samuel Getachew: My commitment to Toronto

I do not like big mega cities however Toronto is an exception. It is a city with a heart. Is it perfect? If it was – I do not think I would have moved to this beautiful city.

I moved to Toronto and in its imperfection, I created a role for me as an activist and citizen. I moved to Toronto to be closer to the action and also play a role in its shortcomings.

The rebuilding of all our communities, the fulfillment of the promise of all of our citizens and the viability of our newest immigrants to play a role in the direction of OUR Toronto is a role I have played over the years. It is a citizenship role that has given me more than I have given in.

I envision a Toronto – that no longer needs “priority neighborhoods” but find all our neighborhoods priorities. I dream of a Toronto where young people are welcome in the political direction of our city. This is an ambitious destination I want my city to arrive in – sooner than later.

I envision my city as a place where we respect the determination of our elders to still play a role and enrich us with their wisdom.

Is Toronto perfect? I am playing a role to make it more perfect.

That is my commitment to Toronto.

Samuel Getachew is a Toronto activist. He is a regular blogger with The Huffington Post, www.browncondor.com, TZTA and Generation Next newspapers.

See Samuel on The Agenda with Steve Paiken talking about engaging youth in politics

Saeed Selvam: Investing in our our people

I imagine a city that thrives by investing in its people.

From underrepresented groups like newcomers and youth, we have a wealth of untapped potential that’s just waiting to be discovered. By investing in neighbourhoods that are underfunded, investing in the creation of opportunities that are not only accessible to vulnerable groups but appealing as well, we can create a new and talented workforce that is able to thrive through diversity and thus create more space for innovative solutions to the common challenges we face.

Issues like transit, newcomer integration, the gap between rich and poor and so on are issues that are not insurmountable, many a time, we fail to consult the individuals who are being affected by problems the most. I imagine a city that is united in its approach to challenges and removes the divide between downtown and the suburbs. I imagine a city that focuses on the challenges that are faced and develops solutions that eventually turn our less-fortunate into productive and content citizens. Our policies need to reflect our diversity and we need to not only invest more resources but also time, in getting to know and care for our neighbour.

Our city is already an example to the world of how the world can unite within a city, let’s make it better together.