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“Hidden in plain sight”: Human trafficking in Calgary

By Nikayla Goddard, March 27 2020 —

Human trafficking is a topic rarely talked about in urban Alberta, but it’s a problem that is everywhere and often hidden in plain sight. While trafficking is typically associated with developing countries and dramatized movies, in talking with three different experts, that’s certainly not the case.

Jessica Brandon, Manager of Training & Education for the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking Alberta (ACT), says that when it comes to the prevalance of human trafficking in Alberta, “it’s all about how open you want your eyes to be to the issue. It’s everywhere, it’s global. Where there are people, there is trafficking.”

ACT is a provincially based organization that provides protection, support and resources for victims of both sex and labour trafficking. Brandon has been with ACT for four years now, and manages training and education on trafficking in both urban and rural centres. She says that she has presented to easily over 1,000 people on behalf of ACT, including people in the health care profession, sexual assault response teams, law enforcement, emergency room staff, students, faculty and at conferences like the Sexual Exploitation Training & Awareness Conference.

“I’ve been an advocate for over 15 years with a strong focus on human rights.” She added, “I’m an intersectional feminist and I think that’s so necessary in the work we do.”

Brandon explained that in urban centres in particular, the clients that use ACT’s services show that trafficking happens in industries like farming, restaurants, retail, hotels and motels and with homecare givers and “almost all of [ACT’s clients] actually come to Canada as temporary foreign workers,” she described. “So our temporary foreign worker program definitely has a lot of work to do — they definitely allow for exploitation, and it happens a lot more than we acknowledge.”

“Sex and labour — both of those kinds of trafficking, they are very prevalent in Calgary, in Edmonton, all over Alberta, all around Canada,” Brandon said. “To be honest, no one is immune. Where there are people, there is trafficking. All with varying socio-economic statuses as well, so it’s not just what we see in the movies. Everyone can be susceptible to some form of trafficking.”

In terms of the clients that ACT assists, Brandon said that as of 2018, 36 per cent were sex trafficked and 64 per cent were trafficked for their labour. Clients, especially female clients, can experience intersections of both types of trafficking. Brandon also said that 68.5 per cent of clients identify as female, 30.6 per cent are male, 0.9 per cent are transgender. Around 22 per cent of clients who identified as Canadian are Indigenous women and girls.

Detective Paul Rubner works for the Calgary Police Service Counter Exploitation Unit — he’s been with the police service for 28 years and is in his eleventh year working with the unit that handles trafficking, sexual exploitation victims and victims of youth sexual exploitation. 

When it comes to his job, he says there’s “no real typical day,” but usually consists of a balance between office duties like paperwork and interacting with social agencies and victims. Detective Rubner also provides public presentations on trafficking and exploitation, giving around 25-30 presentations a year. 

“In terms of police officers in Alberta, I’ve probably been working in this area longer than anybody else,” he said.

“One of the things about trafficking is that not a lot of people know about it because it doesn’t affect them personally or people that they know,” he said. “When you talk to the average person about trafficking, I think a lot of their impressions on what it might look like are based on Hollywood. The picture of trafficking in Calgary is not Taken.”

He explained further, “The vast majority of victims or survivors that we come across are domestic. In the high 90 percentile,” adding that it is even no different from locations in southern America like some may expect. “People tend to think of truckloads of women being moved from one point to the next, and that’s simply not the case. The trafficking fence could be met in a single hotel room with no movement involved — it’s all about the control over the person.” 

Rubner said that in terms of statistics, no one really knows how many people are being trafficked in Calgary — it’s an understudied statistic, with no way to really quantify it. He said he could list how many individuals annually the unit encounters, but there’s no other empirical evidence of those that are lying beneath the unit’s radar. Based off of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, only 10 to 15 per cent of cases get reported Rubner said, let alone trafficking instances. Based off of an agency in Calgary that aids women exiting domestic violence situations, and knowing they help around 80 women a year, Rubner said based off of that there may be 800 women in Calgary that aren’t reporting — but that’s just a ballpark. 

Detective Rubner’s investigations are primarily with sex trafficking, and he explained that the vast majority of victims tend to be young women in their mid 20s, though it can happen to anyone. He added, “Labour trafficking, with the exception of caregivers, doesn’t really have a gender bias.” 

Rubner also agreed with Brandon’s statement that anyone from any socioeconomic background can become victims, and it’s a misconception to think otherwise. 

“What really plays the biggest role is people lacking some of the basic necessities in their life,” he explained. While this can include a lack of food and shelter, it often means lacking a sense of security, sense of belonging, sense of family, “because they will naturally gravitate to individuals that will fill those gaps. And the traffickers and exploiters are very adept at identifying individuals that may be lacking simply by body language or a certain sense.” 

He explained further that it’s difficult to tell those who may be lacking necessities to watch out for those who may offer it, with ill intent. In terms of identification prevention, he said “it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to be aware of our peers and those in our community that might be exhibiting some of those risk factors, and maybe step in to fill those gaps in a positive manner as opposed to leaving it to an exploiter or trafficker.”

As for how to avoid becoming a victim of human trafficking and resources for if you have been, the KARE Counter Exploitation Unit provides information and assistance. Corporal Kim Bradfield, who has been a member of the RCMP for 18 years, works for the KARE Counter Exploitation Unit of the RCMP under the Serious Crimes branch. Corporal Bradfield explained how KARE was originally founded as Project KARE in 2003, with the original purpose of investigating the remains of several missing persons in the Edmonton area. In 2012, it was disbanded but led to the creation of groups such as the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains units, as well as the Pro-Active KARE Unit, which is now renamed the KARE Counter Exploitation Unit.

Bradfield noted that being aware that you have the potential to be exploited is a key to avoiding dangerous situations, as well as fact checking and trusting your instincts. Brandon’s ideas affirmed this, explaining, “Awareness is definitely key to prevention, and talking about it, especially among your friends and if you have kids or youth in your life it’s incredibly important to talk about it.”

If you suspect yourself or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is a confidential, multilingual service, operating 24/7 to connect victims and survivors with social services, law enforcement and emergency services, as well as receive tips from the public. You can reach it at 1-833-900-1010.

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