As the notoriety surrounding human trafficking continues to grow, light needs to be shone on the fact small and rural communities are not immune to this criminal activity.
Even within the Town of Fort Frances, it has become more vital to see the warning signals of human trafficking—the recruitment, harbouring or transporting people into a situation of exploitation through the use of violence, deception or coercion, where they're forced to work against their will. However, the lens through which we view human trafficking may be obstructed.
“We are receiving so much more education around the issue of human trafficking and the signs. We're listening differently now to people when they are talking and picking up on cues and seeing things maybe differently given the increase in knowledge and awareness,” said Rainy River District Victim Services Program (RRDVSP) manager Peggy Loyie.
RRDVSP, alongside Tribal Area Health Services (TAHS) and the OPP, have stated the importance of educating the community about spotting red-flags as part of a strategy to help lower the potential risk of a person being recruited for human trafficking.
One of the difficulties is often the person being trafficked may have a different perception than the reality of the situation.
“The problem with human trafficking that people don't see themselves as victims because it has just become part of their lifestyle . . . they were not kidnapped or forced to do it,” said OPP Const. Jim Davis.
A trafficker's plan is to manipulate the victim by discovering intimate details and filling the voids in a person's life. In the beginning, victims are misled by believing in the traffickers false intentions.
Traffickers will search for people displaying at-risk behaviours. During the grooming process, traffickers will act sympathetic and supportive, creating the illusion of trust.
TAHS special project co-ordinator Jessica Wilson described this as a “trauma bond.”
“A lot of times what traffickers will go for is a vulnerable person that's probably not in the best situation. What happens while they are recruiting them and grooming them is they get information from this person on what's missing (in their lives)—whether they feel abandonment or not loved,” explained Wilson.
Wilson emphasized traffickers are recruiting a lot here and indigenous women are being affected the most as well as children between the ages of 18 and 25.
“We are in the middle of Thunder Bay and Winnipeg and we are also a border town, so we are kind of like a gold mine for traffickers,” expressed Wilson.
“We're really seeing more of it happening in our Scott Street downtown area at nighttime," Wilson added. "And obviously online to younger children there have been incidences where school-aged children have been approached and the grooming process was definitely the target.”
Wilson stated people need to be aware traffickers are using social media as their number one tool to start the grooming process.
Part of TAHS and RRDVSP's goal is to provide youth with presentations on the threats of human trafficking.
Victim services would bring in presenters like Timea Nagy, to local high schools to speak with students about their experiences on social media and if they had ever been contacted by someone they did not know.
Loyie described Nagy's presentation as eye-opening for both her and the students.
Nagy asked the students if they have ever been contacted on social media where a person would say, “Wow, you're really beautiful, I would really like to get to know you.”
Nagy mentioned it can be very flattering and nice to be told your beautiful.
Loyie said she watched as students' hands started to slowly rise in response to Nagy's question.
Nagy again asked about how many of them have been invited to a party—not in this community— but maybe in Winnipeg. The person may also mention: “All you have to do is get there, don't worry about bringing anything it will all be provided, or we just want you to have a good time. I just want to get to know you.”
Loyie watched on again as the hands of both the boys and girls slowly rose. Nagy explained to the students in all probability your being lured and you need to be aware of the threats social media imposes.
As a precaution, RRDVSP and the OPP said parents should watch out for changes in your child's social group, or if your child is doing really well in school and then there is a change.
Other signals may include a change in how they are dressing, a child who was home but is leaving more often, or a kid that is sneaking out.
The OPP mentioned they are warning people that at-risk behaviours make people more vulnerable to human traffickers as they signal to traffickers the strong possibility for recruitment into the sex trade.
Const. Davis reported in the last couple of months there was one occurrence which the OPP classified as human trafficking in the district.
Despite the single occurrence, Ontario is experiencing more of an increase in criminal cases of human trafficking than other provinces across Canada.
Around two-thirds of incidents reported to the police were from Ontario.
The OPP, RRDVSP, and TAHS all agreed victims of human trafficking are reluctant to come forward and report incidents to the police for many reasons.
The public services are aware there are far more incidents happening than what is just being reported to the police.
“What we are seeing is that the way that they are brought into being trafficked is that they have someone who is looking after them, who loves them, so maybe targeting someone who is an at-risk group or doing at-risk behaviours,” said Const. Davis.
Besides not viewing themselves as a victim, another reason people are not forthcoming to report the incident to the police is the fear of the repercussions for their actions. Victims of human trafficking have compared the feeling of being trapped in a spider web.
Loyie talked about a young women's scenario in her attempt to leave and the real threats she faced. She said one victim had her mother's house burnt down in her attempt to leave.
She described another incident where a victim was phone by her trafficker describing her father, what he was wearing, as he mowed the lawn and the address of her parent's house. She was assured that if she went to the police, her family would be harmed.
Victims will often become dependent on their trafficker for basic needs. Victims can also suffer a psychological toll and feel paralyzed by the risk of attempting to leave.
“I think the mindset is what eventually starts out as trust and hope becomes fear and . . . sometimes just what we call a flat effect where there's no feeling anymore,” said Loyie.
For victims which were able to leave, Wilson stated there is an unwillingness to report a criminal charges because the court process can be daunting.
Each time the victims has to disclose information it can be a overwhelming feeling of constant humiliation and negative judgement by re-victimize themselves in front of a judge, lawyer, or jury.
“A lot of times traffickers are being charged with say sexual assault or domestic violence and that's not what it is,” Wilson expressed.
“I think this problem isn't going away and it's going to only increase if we don't start waking up and realize this is happening.”
She added to remember individuals who have been trafficked are humans, too, and due to their circumstance, they were targeted for their vulnerabilities or may have fallen on hard times.
This is not an indication of their character and who they are as a person, so it is important not to rush into false conclusions or stigmatize someone.