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‘It can happen to anyone’: N.S. woman opens up about surviving human trafficking

Woman says she was abducted, repeatedly assaulted before being rescued in Montreal

11 min read
CLancy McDaniel is pictured
caption Clancy McDaniel is speaking out about her experience with human trafficking.
Alexandrea Guye

Editor's Note

Content warning: This story contains details of graphic violence and sexual assault that may be unsettling for some readers.

A recent human trafficking case involving a St. Francis Xavier University student has led another grad to speak out on her own harrowing experience.

Clancy McDaniel feels there should be more awareness of human trafficking in Nova Scotia because it’s happening here too, and the myths that stand in for accurate information allow people to imagine their own communities are somehow safe.

Justin Earl Barrett of Brampton, a freshman at St. FX, was arrested in Newmarket, Ontario on Dec.13 and has been charged with eight crimes including human trafficking. The Newmarket Courthouse confirmed Barrett was granted bail and is scheduled to appear in court next on March 3.

In January 2016, McDaniel, a Cape Bretoner and first-year St. FX student at the time, was visiting Montreal over reading week.

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“I had been drugged, raped, had my clothes taken, had my wallet taken, had no agency, was made to feel the worst I ever had, and hopefully, the worst I ever will feel,” McDaniel told The Signal in an interview earlier this month.

“And the first thing that happened to me was that I was blamed for it. That’s absolutely disgusting. And I think it needs to never happen again.”

Two weeks later she was back at school and struggling to comprehend a terrifying new reality.

“OK, this is what the world can be like — organized crime is real, human trafficking is real,” she said. “All of these things you’re told that make bumps in the night happen to people, and they happen to people like you.

“And then going back to my first-year intro biology class. It was a really, really strange transition.”

Abducted in Montreal, no warning signs at all

The nightmare McDaniel endured started off with a wholly unremarkable conversation with a man at a bar.

“It was the same type of conversation I had with men in bars all my life,” McDaniel said. “There wasn’t anything that stood out to me at the time of, ‘oh, wow, I’m in danger.’

“And I think that’s important, because these people are not stupid.”

McDaniel had spent the previous summer in Montreal. She was familiar with the city, she knew people who worked at many of the bars and restaurants they visited. Still, she warned her less familiar friends to definitely not go home with strangers, because “this isn’t St. FX.”

The guy she was chatting with appeared to be about her age, and seemed like any other guy who had ever tried to chat her up. She didn’t tell him much about herself, except that she was a student elsewhere and visiting the city. She let him buy her one drink. It’s the absolute normalcy of the interaction that later struck her.

She believes the drink was laced.

McDaniel found herself following him to the bathrooms and suddenly realized she felt a lot more intoxicated than she should.

He told her she would be leaving with him and his friends, and not to even think about trying to signal to her friends because “that wouldn’t go well for her.” He high-fived the bouncer on their way past, and she was whisked out of the bar and into a taxi.

She was woozy and scared during the long cab ride, and taken to an apartment complex. Her ID, wallet, phone and clothes were taken. They made her wear high heels. They force fed her drugs. There were assault rifles visible in a closet.

The man from the bar raped her. And then two other men did too.

She was paraded naked in heels, drugged and disoriented, from room to room for other men to see, “like a cow show.” She caught glimpses of other women but was kept away from them.

Throughout the horror, she said her biggest fear was that she would overdose from all the drugs they were pumping into her.

“I felt, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die.’ That was terrifying.”

“And then of course,” she said, “[You’re] feeling like, Did I make some sort of mistake? What did I do wrong? Because you’re thinking, how did I get here in the first place?”

Rescued by persistent friends, stroke of luck

After she disappeared without notice, and didn’t return to their accommodations, McDaniel’s said, her friends knew something was very wrong. They told her afterwards that they had gone to several different police stations trying to get someone to take them seriously. They knew she wouldn’t have gone off with a stranger willingly, she had warned them not to do that. And they had an early morning bus to catch to get back to school in Nova Scotia.

She said the police told her friends that there was nothing they could do, they had to wait 72 hours until she was officially a missing person.

McDaniel is sure that 72 hours would have been too late. She could have been moved, sold, or dead by that point.

Despite the trauma and intoxication, McDaniel kept her wits about her. She knew her friends would be worried and came up with a plan to contact them. She told her captor that she had a friend in town and they should invite her over ‘to party.” She showed him her picture on Instagram. He agreed to let McDaniel send her the address over Facebook Messenger.

Her friends told her they took the address straight to the police who recognized it. They sent in a rescue team.

She felt judged and discredited from the first moments after her rescue

McDaniel said there was very little support or information offered to her by the police or anyone else. She was told that the man who had abducted and tortured her was known to police. He was currently out on bail for weapons related charges.

She said the first thing police asked her about was her sexual history, and whether she usually went home with strange men. Then they asked her if she wanted to press charges.

“This person has told me they have criminal affiliations, the SWAT [sic] team tells me about this charge,” McDaniel recalled. The man had assault rifles and large amounts of drugs in full view.

“And they’re asking me about my sexual history?

“I really shut down after that. It was so disappointing that I didn’t even have time to really process it. It’s almost like the answer was given to me,” she said. “This is your fault. And even if it’s not your fault, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

McDaniel was exhausted, traumatized and desperately wanted to get home and forget the whole ordeal. She was taken to the Montreal General Hospital where a drug test was administered and found multiple drugs in her system.

“The count was up to eight at some point,” McDaniel said, including Xanax, Oxycontin and coke — none of which she had consented to ingesting.

She told them she had been raped multiple times but said the hospital did not take any samples for a rape kit. They gave her a 45-minute IV and a chance to sleep the worst of the drugs off, and then told her they needed the bed for other patients.

McDaniel said she scoured the news for weeks after she got home, looking for any news of a bust, someone who had broken the conditions of their bail — anything.

“I didn’t see anything. And they never contacted me again.”

The Signal contacted the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SVPM) and the Montreal General Hospital, part of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), and the Ministère de la Santé et des Services Sociaux (MSSS), for comment in response to McDaniel’s experiences.

SVPM was also asked if any charges had been laid following this incident and what their policy is for dealing with victims of sexual violence and human trafficking.

In an email, they said that due to confidentiality, they were unable to comment or give any information on this specific case. They said they do encourage victims of sexual assault to file a complaint with the SPVM and that they have a network of partners and resources to help victims.

The MSSS said they were unable to comment, and Gilda Salomone, spokesperson for the MUHC, said in an email that due to patient confidentiality and privacy they could not disclose patient information.

“We are always very sorry to hear that a patient has had a negative experience at the MUHC and encourage any patient who has a complaint to contact the clinical team and the MUHC Office of the Ombudsman,” she said.

Salomone also said “rape kits have been part of the protocol long before 2016. They require patient consent and are performed when indicated.”

Coping with extreme trauma and violent sexual assault

McDaniel only took a few weeks off before returning to classes.

“I think I was still very much in shock,” she said. “And it just hadn’t even really sunk in for me what was going on or what had happened, especially because you have to go back to normal life somehow after that.”

She kept herself very busy with school, became a Residence Assistant, got into student politics, and took part in various committees and campaigns to prevent and respond to sexualized violence on campus.

After graduating, McDaniel accepted her current position as the executive director of Students Nova Scotia, a non-profit advocacy group for post-secondary students. Her work there also deals with preventing and responding to sexual violence on campuses.

It was only this past March, with the added stress and isolation of the pandemic, she realized her anxiety level was creeping up again and she started going back to regular therapy sessions. She realized she had basically spent six years pretending nothing had happened.

However, she said, “I can go into therapy for the rest of my life, and it’s not going to change.”

“It still happened to me. So you have to find a way to live with these things. It’s been touch and go. But, you know, I’m lucky to have the resources I do, because other people don’t.”

It happens here too, and it can happen to anyone

Although her own ordeal happened in Montreal, McDaniel wants people in Nova Scotia to be more aware of the reality of human trafficking — especially in their own communities.

“It can happen to anybody,” she said.

Statistics Canada’s 2018 report on human trafficking shows that Nova Scotia has the highest rate of human trafficking in the country. With only three per cent of the overall population, Nova Scotia accounts for six per cent of all human trafficking incidents.

The report also notes that Nova Scotia, and particularly Halifax, are part of a corridor frequently used to transport victims of human trafficking from Atlantic Canada to larger urban centres elsewhere in Canada.

Charlene Gagnon is the manager of advocacy, research and new initiatives at the Halifax YWCA. The YWCA is part of a new partnership called TESS, the Trafficking and Exploitation Services System. It’s an inter-agency provincial partnership of over 140 community leaders and professionals working with children and youth engaged in the sex trade across Nova Scotia.

TESS and the YWCA are working to train service providers across the province to know how to respond appropriately if somebody presents to them and shares a story of trafficking or exploitation, and how to connect them to specialized supports.

Charlene Gagnon gives a presentation to an auditorium full of onlookers.
caption Charlene Gagnon of the Halifax YWCA during a 2019 training session on trafficking and exploitation for schools and school support staff.

There are many stereotypes about who the victims are supposed to be, Gagnon said.

“They come from this type of family, they’re from this type of community, they engage in this type of behaviour,” Gagnon said, “and that’s absolutely not the case.”

While there are populations who are at higher risk due to social and systemic factors, racism and the legacy of colonization, she said, all youth are at risk.

In a talk she gave at St. FX in 2017, McDaniel said when we imagine the face of the global human trafficking pandemic, we probably don’t picture hers.

While McDaniel said she is young and female and by no means affluent, she is also white, from a stable family, and educated.

She points to the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the disproportionate impacts of human trafficking on women of colour, and women who have been in the foster care system. In its National Strategy To Combat Human Trafficking, the federal government reports that the individuals at greatest risk of victimization include members of vulnerable or marginalized groups such as: Indigenous women and girls; migrants and new immigrants; LGBTQ2 persons; persons living with disabilities; children in the child welfare system; at-risk youth; and those who are already made vulnerable due to racism, sexism, wage inequality, a lack of education, social supports, and employment opportunities.

“That didn’t apply to me,” McDaniel said.

That fed into her own ignorance on the topic at the time, and it feeds into what she feels is wider ignorance about human trafficking in this region.

“I think it’s very easy for it to go under the radar,” McDaniel said, “if you’re not tuned in and paying attention to the lived realities of BIPOC women, who are more at risk for this.”

Gagnon said we have the same dangerous stereotypes about the perpetrators. People tend to assume that they’re male, from a particular community, of a particular race, or a particular age.

“That is absolutely not the case in Nova Scotia,” Gagnon said. “They’re all ages, they’re all genders.’’

Stereotypes are dangerous, she said, because if we think we know what a perpetrator looks like or who a victim should be, then we might miss the warning signs.

What to watch for

Gagnon said every situation is different, and the traffickers are smart. But there are a few red flags to watch out for.

Material goods – If someone you know, who was previously unemployed or on a tight budget, suddenly has lots of new luxury items – purses, clothes, jewelry, etc.

Appearance – If someone suddenly has their hair and nails professionally done, or anything that would indicate a lifestyle that requires a level of income security you know they don’t have.

Transportation – if there is sudden change in how a person gets around. For instance, if your friend always had to walk or take a bus but now is always getting picked up by the same cab. Or maybe someone is getting taxis to the city for weekends in a hotel that they previously couldn’t afford.

Any indications that someone might be in a controlling or abusive relationship. Do they have to jump to answer their phone immediately and have secretive conversations? Are there unexplained bruises? Dramatic shifts in mood or behaviour like paranoia or anxiety?

Branding – If someone has a new tattoo that they are trying to hide or seem reluctant to talk about, it could be a sign. Many victims of human trafficking are branded by their perpetrators. One Gagnon said they have seen is a tattoo of ‘902.’

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About the author

Rose Murphy

Rose Murphy is a multimedia journalist in Nova Scotia. She is interested in stories about unusual characters, small business, resilient communities,...

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