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The cold reality of global human trafficking

Clandestine, controlling—and happening right here in B.C.
The cold reality of global human trafficking Clandestine, controlling—and happening right here in B.C. Braden Dupuis

On Oct. 17, 2017, Cathy Peters, a longtime anti-human trafficking educator and speaker, presented to Whistler's mayor and council about human trafficking, sexual exploitation and youth exploitation.

Peters spoke for five minutes, detailing the disturbing realities of the clandestine global sex trade.

"Since Whistler is a global tourism destination, there will be a robust sex trade with a very large and growing demand," Peters said.

"To satisfy that growing demand, there has to be a supply. The supply is typically youth, children and the vulnerable—Aboriginal, Asian, migrants, disabled, mentally challenged, the poor, in foster care, and every girl under 14."

Peters finished with three asks: a resolution at the local level to present to the Union of BC Municipalities and Federation of Canadian Municipalities, as well as the federal public safety and health ministries; that Whistler council write a letter of support for Peters to present to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, and; that she be permitted to do a presentation to the local RCMP detachment.

No resolutions were passed that night, with then-Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden saying council would discuss the issue with staff before taking next steps.

Since that presentation, Peters has sent two follow-up letters to mayor and council, with no substantial responses aside from the token acknowledgment of receipt.

"No response, no action, no questions, no follow-up, although I did receive a couple of letters from city council acknowledging that they had received my correspondence," Peters said, contrasting that with her presentation to Courtenay city council, in which she was given 10 minutes to present and fielded several questions.

Asked why council never followed up with Peters or supported her asks, a spokesperson for the Resort Municipality of Whistler said it defers to the RCMP on criminal and public safety matters.

But it was interesting that out of all her presentations to city councils (a dozen in total), Whistler's mayor and council were the only ones with nothing to say and no questions to ask, Peters said.

Was she surprised by that?

"Not really," she said.

"I believe council is aware there is crime in their area, but they do not want to deter from impacting tourism business and real estate development/growth and their world-class sports reputation."

Warning Signs

The issue of human trafficking first appeared on Whistler Community Services Society's (WCSS) radar about four years ago, when the WCSS team received education and training from The Salvation Army's Anti-Human Trafficking Programs (collectively known as Deborah's Gate), said executive director Jackie Dickinson.

Through the training, WCSS team members learned to recognize the warning signs that someone might be being trafficked: a young woman who doesn't own her own phone (or owns more than one), goes through an unusual amount of hygiene products, or seems to be receiving an odd number of lavish gifts, as just a few examples.

"Instantly, I could think of a client base of people that I've worked with in the past, and perhaps I knew that they were engaged in illegal behaviour, or perhaps I consider them (to be) engaging in illegal activity in regards to the sex trade, but I didn't always make that connection of human trafficking," Dickinson said.

"And it was really eye-opening for our team to recognize that there were possibly things that we were not as much aware of as we thought."

Through the training, the WCSS team also learned that the rise of Airbnb and other online rental sites has made the problem even harder to track, Dickinson said.

"What will happen now, in the Airbnb situation, is that a series of johns (sex buyers) and pimps will just take over a unit for an extended period of time," Dickinson said.

"(It's) way easier for them—they don't have to deal with a concierge desk or a hotel desk, they're not at risk—and so it's also something that, when people are engaging in Airbnb in this community, they should be aware of."

While Dickinson sees the signs now, she said she's never had a client tell her directly that they're being trafficked.

"What we have done is we have told them what their resources are, and that we are always here to support them, and we present them with the options and specifically the resources," she said.

With that in mind, Dickinson said trafficking is happening everywhere—we just don't see it.

"We can be confident that human trafficking is happening, and I think that we are more at risk for it because we have a tourism industry here," she said.

But human-trafficking cases are not something the Whistler RCMP typically deals with, said Staff Sgt. Paul Hayes.

"In our community, we are not aware of a large issue when it comes to human trafficking," Hayes said, adding that the RCMP is aware of prostitution happening locally, but has no reason to believe it is happening without the consent of the individuals involved.

"Our investigations, when we have those files come across our table, don't lead us down the road of human trafficking, or issues around that," he said.

"My message (to put) out there is if there is information that needs to be shared with us, to please share it with us."

Follow the Demand

While Craigslist recently removed its "personals" section after a bill targeting sex trafficking passed U.S. Congress, other, similar sites have picked up the slack.

Browsing them—and adjacent, far more disturbing forums devoted to reviewing sex workers—gives one a sense of how deep the rabbit hole goes in B.C.

"It will just show you there is a demand for it," said Larissa Maxwell, director of anti-human trafficking programs with Deborah's Gate.

"The thing is, if everyone is a consensual woman, empowered, who has had every opportunity offered to her, and she chooses to be in sex work, and she's over the age of 18—OK, that's not what we're referring to, right?

"What we're looking for is those that wouldn't be in those categories, and we have supported a lot of individuals who would identify as a sex worker, but later tell us, 'Yeah, but I had no other options—I was turned out into the sex trade at 12. So I turned 19, now I'm legal, but what job prospects do I have? I've got a cocaine addiction—how is this going to happen for me?'"

The Salvation Army runs six different programs for victims of human trafficking under the Deborah's Gate "brand," Maxwell said, including high-security rehabilitative safe houses (in undisclosed locations in the Lower Mainland), outreach, mental health and addictions support, and even employment training.

The organization works with between 200 and 300 clients a year, she said, with about half of them coming from B.C.

But the clandestine nature of the industry makes it difficult to gauge how widespread the problem really is.

Most estimates place the total number of trafficked persons globally somewhere between 27 and 32 million.

There have been studies done in Canada, "but at the same time, because it's underground, you can only study those who have been able to come forward," Maxwell said.

Take into account Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women ("who we are ending up finding out that yes, some were exploited and trafficked as well," Maxwell said), or other cases of women being exploited, and the potential scope only grows.

"I actually think it's larger than we think," Maxwell said.

"And I don't think it's getting worse. I just think we have not been calling it what it is."

Due to confidentiality concerns, Maxwell can't detail specific cases, though she was able to discuss the Sea to Sky region generally.

"I will say the Sea to Sky corridor is a very tourist-driven corridor, which means you have a lot of people coming in and out, and any time you see that, the demand for exploitation goes up—so exploitation both in cheap labour, but also in sexual services," she said.

"There is quite a demand in Whistler for sexual services, and sometimes it's like, 'the bachelorette service in the nude,' but sometimes it's, 'I want the girl to my room.'"

Maxwell specified she was not referring to consensual sex workers, noting that the police have been careful not to assume everyone is lumped into one category.

But when the demand is there, perpetrators will capitalize, Maxwell said, referencing a big court case in Vancouver in which it was revealed that one pimp would take his victims to large events in Calgary, or other tourist hot-spots where buyers were likely to be prevalent.

"He would take them where the demand was," she said.

"So without giving you specific circumstances, I think you just follow the trail of demand."

The Reality

When one thinks of "human trafficking," it's easy for the imagination to run amok.

"There's a lot of sensationalized ideas," Maxwell said.

"I think the general public just watches a movie and is like, 'Oh, it's Liam Neeson, and his daughter gets pulled into the sex trade by the cartel.' That is a one-in-a-million story. What does it actually look like?"

In January, more than 40 men were arrested in an underage Vancouver sex sting, including a teacher, a school trustee and a firefighter. (See related story from the Vancouver Courier:

Three other recent court cases in Vancouver also give a glimpse of the reality.

The most high profile of the three is likely the case of Reza Moazami, who was convicted in November 2015 on 30 charges including sexual exploitation, sexual assault and living off the avails of prostitution.

Moazami's 11 victims ranged in age from 14 to 19 years old. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

More recently, in February 2018, two Vancouver men, Tamim Albashir and Kasra Mohsenipour, were found guilty of 17 charges related to human trafficking and pimping-related offences involving their exploitation of three young women, one of them underage.

That same month, another Vancouver man, Michael Bannon, received a lifetime internet ban and a 14-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to 22 charges related to an underage prostitution ring he had been running.

At Deborah's Gate, victims of trafficking come from varied backgrounds.

In the case of foreign nationals, they could be trafficked in another country first before arriving here, or coming to Canada thinking they have a legitimate job offer, Maxwell said.

"And once they're here, they're not getting paid, they're being physically or sexually assaulted, they're confined in a home, they're not allowed to speak their own language, their ID is taken, and it escalates very quickly," she said.

Trafficking begins with exploitation—when someone is being treated unfairly to benefit from their work, Maxwell added.

"And the 'unfairly' could mean you're violating B.C.'s labour code, or it could mean that you are basically acting as a pimp for somebody in sexual exploitation," she said.

"But when it becomes trafficking, in our criminal code, there has to be measures of control added."

Canadians who are victims of trafficking tend to have different situations, Maxwell said.

Typically, predators will look for people with "unmet core needs"—housing, unpaid bills, addictions, or even intangibles like love, belonging, acceptance and safety—and offer to meet those needs.

"They'll say, 'If you come live with me, I'll take care of you. If you come work for me, you'll always have a job,'" Maxwell said.

"And so they kind of dangle the carrot, and often that person is in a place of vulnerability."

What often transpires after that is a "coercive relationship," Maxwell said, and not always of the romantic kind.

"We've seen female perpetrators as well, who kind of play the friend card. We've seen families exploit their own children. We've seen cults—in British Columbia, as you know, there's a few prominent cults, and we see a very similar dynamic," she said.

Perpetrators will often employ a cycle of reward and punishment that may not be immediately noticeable to friends of the victim, Maxwell said.

"The thing is, most people don't realize there's this cycle going on: 'I'm going to meet your need; now I'm not going to meet your need, and I'm going to be violent. Then I'm going to meet your need, and then I'm not going to, and I'm going to be controlling.'"

"It's this cycle that keeps going, and it's a very coercive cycle. It's the same one that people use to abuse children."

The cycle can go on for a long time, until the survivor gets fed up and tries to leave, Maxwell said.

"Usually there's a few really bad exit attempts where they might get hurt or wounded in trying to actually leave," she said.

"Especially gangs, it's very difficult to leave on your own."

Resources and Education

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation may seem like distant problems, but with the proliferation of internet access and the saturation of screens over the last decade, it's a discussion worth having.

Maxwell brings up the case of Coquitlam's Amanda Todd, who took her own life in 2012 after she was "sextorted" by a 35-year-old man from the Netherlands (Aydin Coban, who was sentenced in a Dutch court in 2017 to 10 years in prison, while still facing five charges in Canada).

"Sexting is a warning sign in schools. We need to be addressing that, and in a non-punitive way. So instead of criminally charging 15-year-old youth, these kids need education," she said.

There are typically five main "warning signs" that appear in trafficking situations, Maxwell said: An age difference (and typically not a huge one—Maxwell invoked the power imbalance between a 14-year-old and say, a 19-year-old); gifting (free drugs or alcohol, or car rides, but, most typically, a free cellphone with the GPS tracking enabled); isolating them from their friends and family; or carrying lots of baby wipes, condoms or other hygiene products.

"The last one, it's kind of a subjective one, but you'd be surprised how many cases come from this—it's called gut feeling," Maxwell said.

"It's usually when somebody else around them has a gut feeling that something is wrong."

In the case of Moazami, it moved forward when a student was looking at another student's Instagram account and decided something wasn't right.

"'They've got all these gifts and purses and laptops, but I know that they're broke, and now they're hanging out with this guy, and not coming to school.' They told a teacher and the investigation moved forward," Maxwell said. "So sometimes the gut feeling is so powerful."

It's an important conversation to have, Dickinson said.

"I'm hearing from a lot of parents how much time we are having our kids spend on screens, and it's a really controversial topic, but a lot of luring and conversations can occur over the internet," she said.

"The truth is that they're being exposed to technology at such a young age without any guidelines or rules or code of etiquette, really, to really set them up for success. And then we get frustrated when they're misusing or abusing this tool."

Maxwell recommends the public do two things if they suspect someone is being human trafficked: know where to send them (Whistler Community Services Society here in Whistler), or call the police to file a report, anonymously if necessary.

"Sometimes people just don't want to get that involved—they're too nervous, like, maybe it's not something?" she said.

"But if nobody says anything, it can just go on and on and on."

The public can also reach out to Deborah's Gate for information or advice at

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