Linda Smith of Victim Services Prescott-Russell. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

Raising awareness on human trafficking in Eastern Ontario

“The only thing that you feel is that shame, that fear… Eventually you are even scared of your own shadow… Eventually you lose your mind, and you become a zombie and you just do it… We worked 17 to 18 hours a day. At the end of the day, which is 6 a.m., they would come in and take your money.”

That is how Timea Nagy describes her time as a human trafficking victim. The quote above comes from a video on her website, but the message was the same when she recently presented a workshop in Prescott-Russell.

Organized by Victim Services, the workshop was meant to raise awareness among community partners like Valoris and the OPP. There were about 70 participants from various organizations.

“The more awareness that we can raise, the better suited we’ll be to deal with human trafficking,” says Linda Smith, executive director for Victim Services.

The ‘ghost crime’

During the workshop, Nagy explained how human trafficking is often less apparent than other serious crimes.

“It’s in the area, we’ve just been categorizing it differently,” says Smith.

Smith has been with Victim Services for seven years, and says she’s only seen one case that was officially classified as human trafficking.

She adds, “One in seven years? There’s a lot more than that, but it’s hidden and we seem to think of it as something else, like domestic violence or a sexual assault.”

Currently, Victim Services doesn’t know exactly what “a lot more” is, though. It doesn’t have an estimated number of cases due to the difficult categorization.

Inspector Franca Campisi, the OPP detachment commander for Hawkesbury, echoes that uncertainty.

“Around here, I can’t tell you of known cases,” she says. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, though. In the year that I’ve been here, we haven’t had a case where a young person has come to us and said ‘I’m part of this.'”

When it comes to better classification, Campisi says a lot of it depends on the information presented by the victim.

“If the victim says it’s sexual assault and doesn’t bring anything else up, then we’ll classify it as a sexual assault,” says Campisi.

Red flags

Although, Campisi didn’t attend the workshop herself, she says it was an “eye opener” for the officers that were there. She adds that no major policy changes will be coming to the detachment, but officers will be briefed on recognizing potential red flags.

Some you can notice right away: signs of physical abuse, poor health, poor hygiene; others are more difficult to see: the person not having access to personal ID, and not knowing their address.

The next step is trying to gain that person’s trust. It’s a balancing act between wanting to get them help as quickly as possible, not scaring them away and getting the right information.

Smith says one of the keys to that balance is slowly giving the person the chance to make simple decisions: May I sit down? Would you like something to eat? Are you cold?

Once that rapport is established, Campisi says you can ask some more probing questions: Who are you here with? How did you get here? Are you alone or in a group?

Both Smith and Campisi mention the possibility of victims not realizing they’re being trafficked.

“The very first contact you have with that person will make or break your intervention,” says Smith.

The money side

If the issue of human trafficking seems to come out of nowhere, it’s because it has.

Last year, the provincial government announced it would invest $72 million over four years to fight human trafficking.

Part of that money is funding for community organizations that provide the Victim Crisis Assistance Ontario program. Victim Services for Prescott-Russell is one of those organization and received $8,500 to put towards the workshop.

Another part of that provincial investment went to establish a new fund earlier this month, which “will support community-based solutions” for survivors of human trafficking. The fund will have $18.7 million available over the next three years.

What’s next?

On April 11, community partners had a follow up meeting to “close the gaps,” says Smith. While she didn’t want to expand on details—for victims’ safety—she says there are now 24-hour services to respond to human trafficking cases.

The next step is community education.

There are two important messages to that education. The first is that human trafficking doesn’t only involve sexual exploitation; the second, Campisi says, is that Hawkesbury and the surrounding area can be considered a “vessel” since it’s located between major cities.

“We’re hoping to work in collaboration with the schools because the targets are 12 to 18-year olds, mainly girls,” says Smith.

Campisi also stressed the need for community involvement.

“The issues that evolve in our community, it’s more than just a police problem,” she says. “The community needs to know what’s happening.”