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Community services groups keep an eye on sex trade

Youth exploitation a concern during the Games

As the Winter Olympics play out in the Sea to Sky corridor, social workers continue to tackle youth sexual exploitation.

According to Shannon Herdman from the Howe Sound Women's Centre, before the Games started several local youths were thinking about going into the sex trade strictly during the international sporting competition.

"Some at-risk youth are planning on possibly getting involved in the sex trade during the course of the Olympics as more of an opportunistic situation," Herdman said three days before the Games began. "On the local level, the youth are aware of where they might fit into the sex trade right now."

This week Shana Murray, the children's program manager from the centre, added youth sexual exploitation is always a concern in Squamish and the Sea to Sky corridor.

"About four years ago, we did a survey with the youth and service providers, and quite a few of the youth made comments on the survey that yes these things were present in their life," she said. "It is a concern being the Olympics are here right now and a lot more people are coming from all over the world. It is common from other Olympics that the rate of violence against women is higher."

To address youth sexual exploitation, the centre and other community service groups have been holding workshops with high school students throughout the area for the past several years.

For example, the Howe Sound Women's Centre coordinated a presentation at the youth centre two weeks ago.

And outreach workers from Children of the Street Society were in both Whistler and Pemberton last month as part of their annual school workshops in the area.

Murray said teenagers are going to make the choices they are going to make, and her centre is not going to tell them not to make those choices. But through education, she hopes youths can learn how to protect themselves as well as learn where they can go if they need help.

Neither Herdman nor Murray knew whether any local youth have gone through with their earlier plans to make money through the sex trade during the Games.

Meanwhile, before the Games began, several community service groups teamed up to provide a free workshop to Whistler hotels that would teach front line workers how to identify youth exploitation situations.

The workshop, called HOPE: Helping Others Prevent Exploitation, was organized through the Women's Safety Network and the Children of the Street Society, with all fees covered by the Whistler Community Services Society and the Howe Sound Women's Centre program S.A.F.F.E. (Sea to Sky Adolescents Freedom From Exploitation.)

Even though the free workshops were offered to most hotels in Whistler, no one accepted the invitation.

"There was definitely some hesitation, which I think came from a couple reasons," said Tara Souch through her role with the Women's Safety Network. "There was hesitation about the content and just because it is so busy leading up to the Games."

Souch said the groups plan to try to run the workshop again once the Olympics wrap up.

The Howe Sound Women's Centre is operating a safe room in Whistler throughout the Olympics. The room is open 24 hours a day at an undisclosed location and workers there are providing services to women who encounter violence during the Games, including youth exploitation and sexual assault.


Olympics have not increased sex tourism: Solicitor General

Despite media reports over the past few months speculating that sex tourism would rise exponentially during the Olympics, B.C.'s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General said that isn't happening.

Kash Heed's ministry has been closely watching different indicators of the sex trade - like who crosses the border and what is being posted on - and so far officials haven't seen anything to show a significant rise in demand.

"I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that you have families here, and you have people that are out there just enjoying the festivities," he said, noting the Olympic crowd may differ from a World Cup crowd.

"That is not to be naive to the fact that when you have a large group of people attending specific areas that some of them do partake in the demand for sex trade, but we have not see a clear indicator that there has been a dramatic increase in human trafficking of people or even the domestic trafficking of sex trade workers."

The Solicitor General added his ministry has also been paying close attention to what is happening in Whistler. And the sex trade in the Sea to Sky corridor right now is no different from the region's usual sex trade.

"You have escort agencies that are there that are involved in the sex trade that have been working the corridor up to Whistler for years and years," said Heed.

"You are a resort community, a sport community and the supply and demand formula is used there and there has been a demand there for sex trade workers to come into your community and they have been there for several years to fill that demand."

Speaking also from his previous experience as a police officer, Heed said the sex trade is in every community in B.C. and has been for quite some time.

"We will continue to deal with it the way we need to, but we don't have to be alarmed by the fact that we have the Olympic Games here and there is going to be an increase because that is not taking place," he said.