Front-line worker says COVID-19 pandemic presents 'playground for traffickers' in Saskatoon, hopes proposed legislation will help victims
SASKATOON -- A front-line worker in Saskatoon who helps women exiting the sex trade says she hopes the province’s proposed human trafficking legislation will encourage more people to come forward.
“It is scary when you have gone through what they have gone through and lived through what they have lived through and you’ve experienced and seen the horrific things that they have,” said Joeline Magill, executive director of Hope Restored Canada.
That’s why she said it’s important for the Saskatchewan government to also connect victims and survivors of human trafficking to supports in the community.
“The greater concern for us is really back to the person themselves and how are they being supported, not only through the legal system but also outside of that with the wraparound services that will be necessary as they walk through that process,” Magill said.
She said human trafficking is “actively happening” in Saskatchewan, often in subtle and unexpected ways.
“It’s kind of moved from what we typically would have imagined — it being on the streets and people kind of walking on a stroll and now it’s happening online, in hotels, behind closed doors and stuff that’s a lot more private and not seen by the public and so it’s not something that people are aware is happening,” she said.
Magill said human trafficking continues to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“None of that has stopped even though many of our places have been shutdown, this industry is still active and alive and functioning and also taking in new people every single day,” she said.
“People are isolated and feeling maybe lonely and overwhelmed and mental health issues are at a high… it’s kind of like a playground for traffickers at this point.”
If passed, the Protection From Human Trafficking Act would create a streamlined process for victims to get a protection order against their traffickers with violations of orders resulting in possible fines, jail time and drivers license suspension.
The legislation would also enable victims to start a lawsuit against their traffickers to seek compensation for the harm suffered and make it easier for police to search homes or vehicles where a victim might be held.
The act is consistent with similar legislation in place in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.
Magill said Hope Restored Canada was one of the agencies consulted while the bill was being drafted.
Her organization provides safe housing and programming for women who are exiting the sex trade or fleeing from sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“We are really encouraging the government to continue to consult the advocates, the front-line agencies, and specifically those with lived experience as they craft further details of what this legislation will look like,” she said.
Sgt. Aaron Moser who is in charge of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) VICE-Human Trafficking Unit, said this new bill has the potential to help officers further assist victims.
“Unfortunately human trafficking is a crime that’s plaguing our community right now and it’s a crime that law enforcement is grappling with provincially and across Canada,” he told CTV News.
Moser said one of the characteristics of human trafficking is under-reporting,
“They’ve had hard lives, they went through really egregious victimization when they’ve been victims of human trafficking and when they get out of it, the thought of having to wait several years to go through the court process, many victims don’t want to participate in that,” he said.
“But where this bill comes into play is it gives them the opportunity to receive some protection without going through that process.”
While there are many gaps in data due to under-reporting, there are a few known cases of human trafficking in Saskatoon, Moser said.
From January to September 2020, SPS has identified 13 incidents of human trafficking with 14 victims. Criminal Code charges have been laid in three of those investigations which involve four different suspects so far, according to police. Human trafficking charges have been laid in two of the investigations.
Meanwhile in 2019, SPS said there were 10 incidents involving 10 victims and human trafficking charges were laid in three of those cases.
“We have victims that move in and out of our community, they’re exploited here for a brief time and then they’re moved somewhere else. That makes the crime difficult to detect and it also makes it extremely difficult for victims to seek assistance,” Moser said.
It is often young, vulnerable people who are targeted by traffickers, according to Moser. He said national data suggests that 75 per cent of victims in Canada are under the age of 25 and nearly a third of the victims are under the age of 18.
Moser said one of the most common recruitment tactics is called “boyfriending” or what’s known as a “Romeo pimp.”
Some traffickers will approach their victim and make them believe they are getting into a romantic relationship, when in reality, that’s not their intention, he said.
Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, added that it often happens through “manipulation, lies and someone abusing positions of trust and power to coerce people into doing sex work or into doing forced labour.”
She said some victims start pulling away from their friends and family, not disclosing where they’re going, stop attending school, work or don’t come home at night, and begin possessing expensive items like clothes and purses, without an explanation of where the money came from.
Drydyk encourages people to look out for these warning signs and if they do come across a suspected case of human trafficking or are experiencing it themselves to call the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010.
Her organization operates the hotline and she said from May 2019 to May 2020, the hotline got 3,300 calls and messages from people, allowing them to identify close to 300 cases of human trafficking across the country.
“Traffickers are doing it for the money, so as long as that incentive is there, traffickers will continue to try and find ways to exploit people to get that money,” Drydyk said.
Both Magill and Moser hope Saskatchewan’s propsed legislation will lead to positive change and even open up new conversations.
“I think every additional resource that we put into combating this crime and into assisting victims is a step in the right direction. But, the big picture is, what are the root causes of crime and how do we address vulnerabilities that exist in our community?” Moser said.
Magill added, “We want more people to come forward and report so that we can actually have stats and put this on the map as something that’s happening in Saskatchewan because for front-line workers we know and we see on a daily basis.”