Imagine: A mother spends her life looking after her baby, watching her grow, living through the nightmares that accompany puberty. And then one day, her child is gone. Maybe she ran away. Maybe their family is poor and she gave her child away to someone who promised to care for her in a foreign country.
Or maybe she was kidnapped and sold to someone who forces her to work long hours on farms or in massage parlours, making her use her body to earn her bed. She cannot leave her new home because she is an illegal immigrant, knows nothing about the country and is under the control of her employer. She has become a slave. And sadly, these circumstances are not just products of imaginations – they are, for millions around the world, a terrifying reality.
Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, with about 27 million people in the world living in forced slavery. In a year, slave trade generates an estimated $120-million, making it the second largest example of organized crime worldwide, according to the Canada Fights Human Trafficking website. Unfortunately, many Canadians don’t notice this issue, even though it happens within the borders of the country. And with the Winter Olympics coming to Canada next month, the potential for growth is even greater.
Naomi Baker is a Brantford resident and founder of Canada Fights Human Trafficking, an organization that raises awareness about this crime and concentrates on victim care. According to her, the Olympics has always been a dangerous time as far as trafficking is concerned.
“In history, human trafficking is a problem when it comes to large social events like the Olympics,” she said. “[At] the  Olympics in Greece, there was a 98% increase in human trafficking… that’s substantial, dramatically substantial. So if you don’t ignore history, obviously there is going to be a problem with the Olympics.”
She believes the Olympics is a perfect time for human traffickers to strike since many wealthy people attend the event, making it a “one stop shop” for customers.
Even though the maximum sentence for human trafficking is life imprisonment, Canada currently lacks a minimum sentence for the crime. Our closest neighbours, the United States, have a minimum sentence of 10 years for trafficking anyone under 18 years of age. According to Erin Stewart of Not For Sale, another anti-trafficking organization, Bill C-49 was passed through Parliament in 2004 which made human trafficking a crime according to the Criminal Code of Canada. It is also a crime under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Without a minimum sentence, there is less deterrents for human traffickers. So far, there have been only two convictions of human traffickers in Canada. In the first case, Imani Nakpangi was sentenced to five years in jail for trafficking a 15-year-old girl, but was credited 13 months for pre-trial publicity. He spent just under four years in jail. The second man, Michael Lennox Mark, received a two-year sentence with double credit for the year he served before his trial. He had enslaved a 17-year-old girl for over two years but he spent just a week in jail. Both men spent less time incarcerated than they did exploiting their victims.
Luckily, there are some Canadians who are trying to change the situation. Winnipeg MP Joy Smith has introduced Bill C-268, which calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for anyone caught trafficking minors (children under the age of 18). The bill passed through Parliament with large support, but has been stalled in the Senate. The next possible date for the bill to be addressed is January 26 2010 when the Senate will resume. Sixteen days later, the Olympics begin. This means that the bill may not be passed in time for the event.
This possibility only makes Canada a more attractive destination for traffickers. After all, as Baker says, “people know that people with money are going to be there. So if you’re going to take your girls to make a lot of money…why won’t you go to a country that has very lax sentencing?”
At this point, it seems the most effective point of action is raising awareness. On November 4, 2009, representatives from Not For Sale were at Yes Church in Brantford as part of their Backyard Abolitionist Tour. Based out of San Francisco, the organization deals with all forms of human trafficking and forced labour. It is also involved in raising awareness on trafficking in Canada.
Many of the cases in Canada involve people being brought into the country. According to Brant Christopher Menswar, the Director of Strategic Initiatives and the primary speaker at the tour stop in Brantford, areas near ports are usually high risk zones for trafficking. Usually when people are brought in, their inability to speak English makes it more difficult for them to escape.
For the Olympics, many of these NGOs dedicated to fighting human trafficking have poster campaigns, internet commercials and are directly involved in raising awareness in Vancouver. According to Baker, they are working on getting a national hotline which victims can call for help and advice. In addition to these organizations, the RCMP and Immigration Canada are also doing their best to be prepared for victims coming through.
To help people identify cases, Not For Sale runs an Investigator Academy program in San Francisco. The training involves two classes over 50 hours – one that teaches how to map slavery and find local resources to document cases, and another that teaches supply chain investigation to know if products being used are made by slaves.
The Ontario branch plans to hold its own Investigator Academy in Brantford next May. The program will be designed like the American version, but modified to fit Canadian laws.
“Instead of having the FBI come in, we’ll have the RCMP,” said Mary MacKay, Not For Sale’s Ontario director. “We want entirely Canadian content.”
Menswar advised people to live differently, and cultivate habits that do not support slavery, like buying fair trade products.
“I don’t want to wear someone’s suffering or crush their dreams,” he said. “That’s why we need to be smart activists in terms of the things we buy. The world is filled with dumb activists who carry signs and walk back and forth…but it won’t make a difference unless we change our buying habits.”
One of the biggest problems to handle is the misconceptions that surround human trafficking. According to Baker, many people assume trafficking involves only kidnapping which implies that it is only physical. However, it can also be mental.
It is a form of slavery, but in Canada, traffickers are smart enough to understand that they cannot physically chain their victims. Instead they mentally chain and coerce them. “[They tell them] if you don’t do this, we’ll burn your house down and leave your mother in it…Horrific things like that,” said Baker. “They take your brain and control you that way.”
Possibly the scariest thing about human trafficking is the subtle way traffickers lure their victims using normal situations. The internet allows them to find victims by posting job opportunities online. People respond to these ads before they realize they are not what they think. There is also the manipulation of emotions. Commonly, a boy pretends to fall in love with a girl, only to get her into debt and convince her to involve herself in prostitution in order to pay him back, or prove her love for him.
“Most of the time people don’t understand human trafficking,” says Baker. “They think they are the slime because they are being prostituted. That’s how they see it. But that’s not what it is. They are actually being trafficked.”