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Highway of Horror   

author: Geoff Zochodne

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Prostitution, that age-old profession, has taken a nasty turn and it’s catching the attention of local police forces across the province. They’re increasingly aware of human trafficking, “…because it is here. It’s everywhere,” says Belleville Police Chief Cory MacKay. Ontario has become the “hub” of human trafficking in Canada, and communities along the 401 serve as a spoke in the wheel of despair

On any given weekend, motel parking lots along the Highway of Heroes are filled with vehicles – and they’re not all owned by families on vacation, either. Some belong to johns seeking thrills behind the numbered doors.

Within hours of their sexual encounters, the johns have returned to their families and their jobs and the pimps are back on line, posting advertisements. Human trafficking is always moving. Traffickers are known to travel up and down the 401, a night here, a night there.

Often described as “a modern form of slavery”, human trafficking draws special interest because of its dark nature and the people it preys on most: young women. “Our first priority is to save our girls,” says MacKay.

Those “girls” can be recruited into the sex trade from schools and group homes or lured through social media by traffickers who keep them under their thumb with mental manipulation and intimidation.

Traffickers use websites and social media to arrange “dates” with their predominantly male clientele. Ads for trafficked women can be mixed in with more traditional escort services. They can be dotted with emoticons – little pictures of hearts, roses and lips – and they may promise girls who are “new in town” or will “knock your socks off” and others still, who are “available for fun now”. The descriptions of the women vary – “exotic” or “kinky” are favourites – and often the girls are in the area for “a limited engagement” before being dragged off to the next stopover along Highway 401.

MADE IN CANADA | Another shock is that human trafficking is not some far-flung or exotic crime. More often than not the people involved are from right here.

“People believe human trafficking is girls that are brought in from abroad. No, these are our own homegrown Canadian girls,” says Katarina MacLeod, the founder of Rising Angels, a survivor-led organization that offers support services to women who have left or escaped the sex trade. “Human trafficking is a woman – a girl – who is being pushed from city to city and hotel to hotel and giving her money over to the pimps. That’s exactly what human trafficking is, and people don’t even understand that it’s happening here.”

A 2013 report from the RCMP backs up MacLeod’s analysis: “The majority of traffickers are male, Canadian citizens, between the ages of 19 and 32 years, and are of various ethnicities or races… the victims are female, Canadian citizens, between the ages of 14 and 22 years, and are typically Caucasian.” And Ontario is at the heart of Canada’s human trafficking. Of all the cases reported to police, the Ontario government says 65 per cent take place in the province. The provincial government also notes that Indigenous women and children face “increased vulnerability to human trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

Member of Provincial Parliament for Prince Edward-Hastings Todd Smith is blunt in his assessment of human trafficking: “It’s happening daily in our community, and it’s involving our kids.”

Chief MacKay spent time discussing the problem at a roundtable held at Smith’s office this past summer. Prior to his time in politics, Smith was a news director at local radio stations for over 16 years. He’d seen the odd human trafficking story pop up from time to time, but hearing police and sexual assault centre employees describe how common it was in his own community surprised him.

THE BUSINESS| Money is the main draw for traffickers. The RCMP says the traffickers normally claim all of their victims’ profits, which can be between $500 and $1,000 a day. It’s potentially a six-figure income built on human slavery.

Katarina MacLeod has seen the money changing hands. During her 15-year tour of duty in the sex trade, MacLeod worked in massage parlours, her car, apartments, hotels and strip clubs. She had bosses send her on dates with clients. She dealt with johns who had crazy fetishes. She was thrown around and had her jaw dislocated. “There’s something that happens with a client when they buy you,” she says. “They believe they own you.”

Now MacLeod talks about her past life for a living. Ironically, MacLeod was recruited into the sex trade at a support group for abused women. She thought it could be a way to earn money and escape a vicious relationship. “I was 21 when I entered, and I was 36 when I got out,” she says matter-of-factly over the phone.

MacLeod watched other women work drunk and high. She became an addict herself. She saw a mother trafficking her own daughter. She fell in with a smooth-talking pimp. “I think I was so desperate to be loved and accepted at that point that I fell for it,” she says.

MacLeod considers her experience to be trafficking because she never had a choice. She had kids to support and no other resources. “I thought I made a conscious decision to do something, but I didn’t,” she says.

Despite having witnessed some harrowing scenes, MacLeod says what she is seeing now in the sex trade is “insane.” She is constantly hearing tales of young girls – sexually abused in their younger years – lured in by the “Romeo” pimp, an older man who befriends them, buys them things, and makes them feel appreciated.

“By the time she realizes that he’s really just grooming her, it’s kind of too late because she’s so emotionally attached,” says MacLeod.

Other times it can be the “boyfriend” pimp feeding girls stories of a happy life together. A house and kids are promised, but turning a couple of tricks could make it happen faster, the girls are told.

“And these girls are falling for it because they are craving a little bit of normal in their lives,” says MacLeod. “By the time they realize that, ‘oh my god, I’m being prostituted out’, it’s very hard to get out.”

ON THE MOVE | The traffickers don’t make it easy for the women to get out. They are constantly in motion along Highway 401. “These girls unfortunately are moved from community to community so they may only be in Belleville for a couple of nights,” say Chief MacKay.

This is a control tactic traffickers use on their victims, says Cpl. Yves Brochu, a Mountie with the RCMP’s Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre. “By doing so, they’re isolating them,” said Brochu. “So the victims have no other choice but to depend on the person who’s exploiting them…It’s not unusual to have these young girls servicing a dozen, 15, 20 johns in a day. And this happens seven days a week.”

“There’s no model for a trafficker,” adds Brochu. “They come from every gender, race and level of income…There’s no nefarious Dr. Evil who’s controlling all the pimps and prostitution. Anybody can be a trafficker; some people just don’t have an issue with exploiting people to enrich themselves.”

Not all sex trade workers are trafficked; for some it’s their livelihood. And, according to Brochu, most sex work is now conducted off the streets and on the Internet.

Brochu began working the human trafficking beat after nearly 30 years of policing, but the problem leaves him at a loss. “I find it hard to comprehend this is happening every day, all over Canada, in every city,” he muses.

“It’s so big; it’s hard to wrap your head around, right?"

A FEARFUL SILENCE| The constant movement, the mind tricks and physical danger are reasons why victims can be reluctant to come forward. This also makes it difficult for police and support groups to get a handle on the size of the problem.

Anu Dugal, the director of violence prevention programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, says there is a “data gap” when it comes to human trafficking. It is hard for women to identify themselves as trafficked. It is even harder for them to understand the traumatic impact of the experience, which eats away at self-esteem. It can also lead to substance abuse and eventually leaves them without a home or the traditional work history they need to get a job when they leave the trade. There is also an “open door,” Dugal says, to a return to prostitution. “That’s a cycle they can very often end up in.”

Detective Murray Rose, a member of Durham Regional Police Service’s (DRPS) designated human trafficking unit, has another explanation for why it’s so hard to get information: “A lot of women will not be truthful with the police because they’re scared, because their trafficker has put so much fear into them.”

TRACKING AND ATTACKING THE CRIME| When you combine that fear and the ability of the traffickers to move easily from community to community, catching the perpetrators is difficult and helping the perpetrated is more so. But the rapid growth of the problem has gained the attention of politicians, legislators, police forces and social service agencies.

This past summer, the provincial government announced it would spend up to $72 million on an anti-human trafficking strategy, which includes measures aimed at better understanding, preventing and prosecuting allegations of human trafficking. Part of the strategy involves a special team of Crown attorneys assigned to handle human trafficking cases.

Progressive Conservative MPP Laurie Scott also has a private member’s bill, the Saving the Girl Next Door Act, which, among other measures, would allow judges to issue protection orders that would prevent human traffickers from contacting their victims. The legislation has passed second reading but it has yet to be studied by a committee. If it isn’t moved along, it could wither away and die on the order paper at the Ontario Legislature.

Scott says the government needs to address human trafficking, which she claims is more prevalent than people realize. Scott, along with her fellow MPP Todd Smith and the Belleville Police, are also pushing for a province-wide task force dedicated to stopping human trafficking. Given that the crime knows no municipal boundary, it makes sense to them to have a response that works the same way.

“These girls are being trafficked and most predominantly along the 401 corridor,” says Scott, noting the women could be gone before police even get a call. And Belleville Deputy Police Chief Ron Gignac notes the traffickers can range from lone wolves to members of organized crime. He calls them “entrepreneurs” with bad intentions. “That’s why we need a combined task force,” says Gignac.

MEANWHILE... | While the provincial strategy rolls out, local police and agencies meet the problem head on. The Victim Services of Peterborough and Northumberland (VSPN) works with human trafficking survivors – both locals and those from outside the community, offering counselling and emergency transportation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“There are so many complex needs; it’s not typically one single incident and one single offender,” says Emily Poulin, executive director of the VSPN. “Complex, interpersonal trauma can cause more severe reaction in the victim because it is deliberate, premeditated and is usually repeated over time. They’ve been taken out of their familiar surroundings…they have no family or friends to rely on for support and their needs are immediate.”

Kim Charlebois, executive director of Sexual Assault Centre for Quinte and District, believes she is seeing and working with women trafficked through the community because of the 401 corridor. The centre hands control back to the women and puts them in a group situation to show them they aren’t alone. It also builds camaraderie, says Charlebois. “When you talk about somebody who’s been trafficked, you’re taking it to another level,” she explains. “Because their control has been taken away in a different kind of way.”

But Charlebois also wants the spotlight turned on the customers, who are almost entirely men. “If they weren’t paying for it, we wouldn’t have an issue,” says Charlebois. And these men, like the traffickers, could be almost anyone.

Katarina MacLeod, from Rising Angels, believes some hotel managers are complicit: “As long as their rooms are rented, they really don’t care,” she says. “Everybody’s kind of dipping their hand everywhere so it’s hard to keep these girls located.”

According to Chief Cory MacKay, human trafficking has now become more of a focus for police services. Belleville officers have already received specialized training (along with their Cobourg and Port Hope counterparts). The priority now is training more cops and educating the public on how to identify human trafficking, with the ultimate goal to stop the trade.

Belleville police took part in a national human trafficking operation last fall, contacting and checking in with women in the city who had been advertising sexual services online. There have been a few human trafficking charges here and there as well, although those investigations and court cases can take years before they conclude.

Belleville also has a community situation table that brings together local partners to help identify girls who may be at risk and prevent them from being entrapped in the first place. Early identification and prevention are critical to success because investigations and prosecutions after the fact can take years – too many years when people’s lives are at stake.

As Chief Cory MacKay notes, fixing the problem isn’t as simple as writing tickets.

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