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Luring, grooming, trafficking

How victims of human trafficking in Canada are created and why it goes undiscovered

Editor's Note: This story was written and reported by Haeley Cook DiRisio as her professional project in the King's MJ program.

“He said to me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for us now.’”

It was a snowy night in 2014 in Marathon, Ont., when Kaitlin Bick and her boyfriend and his friend were pulled over for driving too slowly. The police officer arrested them. “He could smell the weed billowing out of the car,” Bick says. 

They were headed to Calgary, where, unbeknownst to Bick, she would be trafficked.

Her boyfriend—and soon to become trafficker, manipulated her into selling her body to pay for legal fees after blaming her for the arrest, she says. 

Bick grew up in Thornbury, Ont. She felt inadequate growing up and always thought she wasn’t as smart as her peers—or as pretty. Bick has several learning disabilities which contributed to her low self-esteem. She says, she started using drugs at age 12 and two years later, she says she was raped.

In high school, Bick began selling her body in exchange for drugs, received treatment for her addiction and later attended Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). 

Afraid of looking stupid because of her learning disabilities, she didn’t ask for help. After her first semester she took a temporary leave. A few months later, her mother passed away and Bick says she began using again.

“At that point everything had skyrocketed.”

In her early 20s, she returned to sex work and dropped out of university completely. It wasn’t until she met her boyfriend that she says the trafficking began.

Combatting a “modern form of slavery”

Human trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour. It is often described as a modern form of slavery.”

Statistics Canada’s Trafficking in persons in Canada, 2020  report says human trafficking resulted in fewer guilty convictions compared to offences involving sex trade charges, such as prostitution and cases involving violent charges. 

Human trafficking had a 12 per cent conviction rate compared to 33 per cent for sex trade offences and 48 per cent for violent charges—such as sexual violations against children, assaults and homicides.

Sex trafficking is when men, women and children are forced to preform sexual acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

If a person is under the age of 18, the law considers the individual to be a victim of human trafficking even without the use of force, fraud or coercion. 

Bick says, “In order to do sex work, you need to consent to it, it needs to be your choice, no one can make you feel like there’s an ultimatum.”  

Her addiction fuelled her sex work. It was different from when she was trafficked—no one was forcing her.

But when Bick met her boyfriend, he coerced her with drugs and then forced her to work for the legal fees after they had been arrested on the way to Alberta, although Bick says he was going to traffic her regardless of their arrest. 

Statistics Canada’s 2020 report says that since 2010, 2,977 incidents of human trafficking have been reported to police in Canada. Of those reported, 96 per cent of these victims were women and girls, and 91 per cent knew their trafficker. Thirty-one per cent were trafficked by a current or former intimate partner.

Bick met her trafficker at a party one night in Scarborough, Ont. He invited her to talk in private, where she says, “He was asking me all these questions and making eye contact, not looking at my body or trying to sleep with me.” 

They eventually became boyfriend and girlfriend. Bick says he showered her with gifts, affection—and all the drugs she wanted.

“He didn’t want anything in return,” Bick says. “At least that’s what I thought.”

When Bick arrived in Calgary in 2014, the first stop was to get lingerie. “They were already creating my ad before we had even gotten to the hotel,” she says. She had photos taken of her and an ad posted on Backpage, a site used to post classified ads. (It was shut down in 2018 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other U.S. authorities.) “They kept me busy night and day.” 

In retrospect, Bick felt when police arrested them on drug charges on the way to Alberta more could have been done.

Bick says police informed her that her boyfriend had lied to her about his name. But despite the inconsistencies between what she told police and what her traffickers told the police, they didn’t do anything to intervene.

They spent a month in Calgary until Bick was able to convince her trafficker to take her home. Months later Bick still didn’t realize she had been trafficked. She received none of the profits and when she asked for a break, he offered her numbing cream instead. 

When Bick went in to report her boyfriend for his abusive behaviour, police informed her she had been a victim of human trafficking. “I didn’t know what trafficking was,” she says. 

After Bick spoke with police and pressed charges for trafficking, her trafficker never went to trial because he couldn’t be found. “I’m pretty sure he probably fled the continent,” Bick says. 

Toronto Police Service sent out a news release in 2015 and asked the public for any information on the whereabouts of Bick’s trafficker. The news release stated he was wanted on human trafficking charges. 

In an emailed response, Toronto Police said “We have no further updates on this case.”

At a standstill

The Trafficking in Persons in Canada, 2020 report says that human trafficking cases took almost twice as long to complete compared to cases for violent adult crimes. Cases with at least one violent charge took on average 176 days to complete, where human trafficking cases took about 373 days. 

Victim testimonies can re-traumatize the victim, says Josie McKinney, Nova Scotia’s first crown attorney dedicated to human trafficking prosecutions. 

“A lot of variables that have to be proven in a court of law are unique to the human trafficking charge,” says James McLean of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, a national charity.

Crown prosecutors often drop trafficking charges and pursue other ways to indict traffickers because they will be more likely to get a conviction, McLean says. “Courts have an over reliance on victim testimony in human trafficking cases.”

This is a problem, because many victims will back out of testifying due to fear of their trafficker and fear of reliving their trauma. 

So, what can be done to ensure traffickers receive jail time for their crimes?

Seeking solutions 

Nova Scotia is allowing the use of additional evidence such as cell phones, video surveillance, hotel records and other information that can lead to a charge for human trafficking. McKinney says this has helped to solidify cases against traffickers. 

“The more information we have, not only makes the case stronger, it’s actually lifting some weight off the shoulders of the victims, because now they’re not the only one telling their story,” McKinney says. 

The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, the national financial intelligence agency of Canada, released a report in July of 2021 to explain how its software looks at banking information. The software targets suspicious activities such as money laundering and other criminal behaviour that may happen through money transfers, McLean says. 

The data focused on the methods used to transfer funds and launder the money in human trafficking incidents. The report states, email money transfers and cash deposits were the primary transactions in human trafficking for sexual exploitation-related disclosures.” 

The financial transaction centre found that the money was then laundered through avenues such as online casinos, casinos, virtual currencies, prepaid credit cards, gift cards, trafficker’s front companies and investment accounts.

There’s also a demand for the federal government to update its privacy legislation, McLean says. “Canada needs to do a better job of understanding how to make these tools accessible to law enforcement. What some of the [other] AI companies told us was they have these tools that will dig through the internet and look for suspicious activity on websites and social media accounts.”

But these companies are hesitant to use these tools because the privacy legislation in Canada isn’t clear, McLean says.

Human-i, an intelligence organization based in Langley, B.C., is one of these companies. The organization conducts online investigations to uncover otherwise hard-to-find information, specifically on the dark web—which is only accessible through special software and allows users to remain anonymous and untraceable. 

Julie Jones, the CEO of Human-i, says, “I am a privacy advocate, I believe everyone has a right to privacy, but I also believe that law enforcement should have every tool at their disposal.”  

It’s often difficult for law enforcement to make arrests because, “Multi-jurisdictional investigations are a challenging area that human trafficking tends to fall into,” Jones says. “Traffickers will purposely move victims through jurisdictions so it makes it harder for law enforcements to communicate and collaborate.”

With the use of organizations like Human-i, further evidence of where traffickers are moving victims and where money is being transferred can help to indict traffickers, Jones says. 

Recruitment

Social media now plays a big role in “luring” victims. , warns the Canadian Centre To End Human Trafficking.

Traffickers will contact someone through social media, give them compliments and build a relationship—sometimes even dating the victim and showering them with gifts, says the centre in a 2020 blog post called Social media grooming for sex trafficking.

From there they will create a dependency, whether that be through drugs or solely a feeling of being wanted. 

“The most common misconception is that people equate human trafficking with what they see in movies—like Taken,” McLean says.

Taken released in 2008 follows a father traveling to Europe to save his daughter from a human trafficking ring. The film adds to the narrative that trafficking only happens overseas and that victims taken in places like Canada and the U.S. are transported to other countries to be trafficked, McLean says. 

“The reality is actually a lot more disturbing.” 

Human trafficking is happening domestically, he says, on major routes including Highway 401, the Trans-Canada Highway and flight paths from Montreal to Alberta. 

Halifax and Nova Scotia have also become major gateways to other parts of Canada, McKinney says. “A trafficker may recruit someone here and then try them out at a neighbouring province. And then, if successful, move them to other parts of the country.” 

According to the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, there are many myths about trafficking. Bick says, although factors such as age, race and economic status can play a role, anyone can become a victim. 

“What they’re looking for is how vulnerable someone is.”

Data from the centre shows that traffickers target individuals who have “signs of low self-esteem, loneliness and lack of support.” They do this by scouring social media or frequenting places like homeless shelters, youth drop-in programs, malls, group homes and foster care homes—where they are more likely to find vulnerable youth.

Nova Scotia crown prosecutors along with support services help survivors of human trafficking by providing housing, food and building a relationship with victims so they can trust the human trafficking prosecutors. 

McKinney says public awareness around human trafficking and greater access to support for survivors have led to more reporting in human trafficking cases.

Bick says she could have benefited from education about trafficking. 

“If I was taught what [trafficking] looked like in my elementary school, would this have happened to me? Maybe but maybe not.” 

As a vulnerable youth, she may have benefited from learning more about what consent really means. She says, “I said ‘yes’ a thousand times and I meant ‘no’.”

Bick now works at Leap of Faith Together, a community service based in Toronto, that helps those facing mental and physical health challenges, addiction issues and homelessness. 

As a survivor and recovering addict who has been clean since April 30, 2015, she supports victims of human trafficking battling addiction and helps them escape from their traffickers, which is often the first but hardest step. 

“It’s not about arresting the bad guy, it’s about preventing this in the first place.”

Kaitlin Bick today   Haeley Cook DiRisio

 

Haeley Cook DiRisio

Haeley Cook DiRisio

Haeley Cook DiRisio is a journalist for CKDU radio. She is a recent graduate from The University of King's College Master of Journalism program. Originally from Oakville, Ontario, she received her undergraduate degree from Humber College.