Imagine a young aboriginal women standing alone in the night, her stance hardened by violence, outrage and sadness. Like her mother before her, she is a survivor. A survivor of colonisation, a survivor of family violence, a survivor of poverty and lack of resources, a survivor of false promises from a boyfriend that gave her hope. All she had to do was move with him to the city, he would find her a job and he would take care of her. Only for a little while baby, until the money comes in would she have to work the streets. The drugs and alcohol silenced her pain from his abuse. How could I have trusted him? Does anyone miss me? Does anyone still care? I have been gone so long. Will he let me leave? How do I get myself out of this one? Maybe the friendship center knows? That’s where I will start! I will no longer be a stolen sister!

“Hundreds upon hundreds of our sisters and daughters have gone missing or been murdered. Putting a few dollars into the kind of police work that happens anyway is not a solution. We need a concrete national plan of action that will bring real change in our lives.” – Bernadette Smith, sister of 21-year-old Claudette Osborne who vanished from Winnipeg in July 2008.

There has been a disproportionate amount of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada and there is a strong possibility that many of these women are likely to be victims of human trafficking. In 2002, the National Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) published the Special Rapporteur document entitled Violation of Indigenous Rights, in which it highlighted the generalised situation of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada, including the missing and murdered women. In 2004, Amnesty international, in partnership with the NWAC, mirrored these concerns and released the report Stolen Sisters, recommending that the Canadian government acknowledge the seriousness of the problem of violence against Aboriginal women and clearly define an outline of measures to rectify this situation. Since then, Aboriginal women and community organisations have led a nationwide campaign to pressure the Canadian government to examine what has happened to the murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada. Aboriginal women are disproportionately affected by all forms of violence. The struggle to bring justice to these murdered and missing Aboriginal women has been a long time coming:

  • Between 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women represented 16% of all women murdered in Canada even though they only represented 4% of the female population

  • Between 2005 and 2010, the National Women’s Association of Canada, through its Sisters in Spirit project, identified that 582 Indigenous women and girls, over the period of 20 years, were missing and murdered from across Canada

  • In 2014, the Canadian government, under the Harper administration, cut all funding to the Sisters in Spirit project

  • In 2014, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified a total of 1,181 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

  • After much pressure from grassroots organisations, the new Liberal Canadian government decided on December 8, 2015 to launch a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to figure out what is behind the unacceptably high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women

“This inquiry is necessary to address and prevent future violence against Indigenous women and girls. These women are not statistics – they are daughters, sisters, and mothers – and they have the right to live safely and free of violence.” – Patty Hajdu, Minister of Status of Women.

Hopefully, the National Inquiry will finally be able to answer to what has happened to these women.

  • Where are these murdered and missing Aboriginal women? Could the missing women be linked to organised crime and human trafficking?

  • What are the root causes such as colonisation, socioeconomic migration and discriminatory reasons behind the systemic violence against Aboriginal women?

  • Why are Aboriginal women vulnerable to sexual exploitation, tech-related violence against women and human trafficking?

  • Why has the police and judicial process systemically failed these women? Where is justice for these women?

Domestic human trafficking does exists in Canada

a) What is human trafficking?

The trafficking of persons is a transnational problem that exists in all corners of the world. Its faces show the worst of human nature, where sexual and labour exploitation, profit and greed take precedence over human dignity and fairness. It involves the forced, coercive and violent transportation of people across regional, national, provincial and territorial borders. Trafficking uses situations of extreme poverty and the opportunity for a better livelihood, including legal and illegal movement of people, as its means to exploit vulnerable members of society. It is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that “79 % of trafficking cases worldwide are related to sexual exploitation and 18% correspond to forced labour,” and that “millions of women worldwide are trafficked for use in the sex industry, others for domestic labour.” It is considered a violation of the person’s right to freedom, dignity and self-determination. Human traffickers dominate survivors by threatening their person and family members, seizing travel and identification documents, and selling the same survivor numerous times in order to keep them disoriented.

b) Domestic human trafficking against women in Canada

Trafficking in person can result from socioeconomic pressure from within the country for the demand and supply of cheap labour and sexual exploitation. “Trafficking is a form of forced labour in that it responds to demands in Canada. It is a Canadian problem.” It is estimated that 93% of sex trafficking victims come from Canada, not other countries. Along similar lines, a national survey of community service providers done by the Canadian Women’s Foundation calculated the total of trafficking girls and women to be at 2,872 persons in one year. This is primarily based on local demand for sexual exploitation within the criminal sex market. Moreover, research indicates that the survivors of human trafficking vary between the ages of 12 to 23 years old, recruited “by male peers who also may have been specifically recruited by organized crime.” In 2014, Canada continues to be ranked by U.S. Department of States Trafficking in Persons Report as a Tier 1 country, meaning that Canada complies with the standards provided by the report.

Important history lesson; wounds from colonisation continue to increase Aboriginal women’s risk of human trafficking.

a) Colonisation has lasting effects on Aboriginal communities

In addressing the particular vulnerability of Aboriginal communities in Canada to domestic human trafficking, it is important to examine the effects of colonisation on Aboriginal women, poverty and social inequalities in Canada. These factors ultimately increase Aboriginal women’s susceptibility to exploitation and can cause particular vulnerability to human trafficking. The connections between historical domination of Aboriginal communities and increased levels of socioeconomic poverty experienced in Aboriginal communities are highlighted in the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It provides a historical analysis of the damages experienced by Aboriginal communities in Canada as a result of domination and control by federal institutions. This unequal relationship, based on situations of economic and cultural dominance of Aboriginal culture by federal policies and practices, have led to the systemic undermining of Aboriginal leadership and grassroots economic development. The Report ultimately equates the experience of the Aboriginal community in Canada with challenges faced by cultural groups in the ‘developing world’. According to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:

“Aboriginal people endure ill health, run-down and overcrowded housing, polluted water, inadequate schools, poverty and family breakdown at rates found more often in developing countries than in Canada. These conditions are inherently unjust. They also imperil the future of Aboriginal communities and nations.”

b) Colonisation has ongoing impacts on gender-based violence

The impact of colonialism, gender based violence and poverty are crucial in understanding the particular vulnerability of Aboriginal to human trafficking. These factors define Aboriginal women’s ability to negotiate the judicial system in Canada and bring traffickers to justice.

“For Indigenous women, the systematic violation of their collective rights as Indigenous People is the single greatest risk factor for gender based violence – including violence perpetrated within their communities.”

The colonial structure of inequality reinforced the suppression of Aboriginal cultural practices and bred community and family violence, sexual violence and gender violence against women. Colonialism in Canada demoted Aboriginal men to an inferior position and lead to an increase in violence against Aboriginal women. These women were then subjected to two types of violence, coming from State authorities and from within the family unit. The particular vulnerability of Aboriginal women to violence is primarily related to “poverty-driven and inter-generational or cyclical (abuse) resulting from the residual impact of colonization and residential schools.”

Missing Aboriginal women could be victims of TRVAW and human trafficking

Migration flows, economic disparity and social disadvantages between the regions, provinces and communities are key factors in determining the vulnerability of certain groups to human trafficking. “Disparities have been on the increase in many countries. The income gap seems to have widened between regions, gender groups, rural and urban areas, and ethnic groups.” The increasing income disparities between regions and communities in Canada, particularly between native and non-native communities living in both urban and rural areas, means that Aboriginal women are at higher risk of human trafficking. Their need to secure employment outside of their communities can result in taking risky decisions based on the financial needs of their families.

The social and economic vulnerability of Aboriginal women to domestic trafficking is linked to the lack of education, awareness and acknowledgement of sexual exploitation. This is amplified by several other factors, which all combine to increase these women’s vulnerability to trafficking. These factors include the loss of cultural identity, poverty, migration to urban areas to find employment, racism, substance abuse and the role of gangs in ensuring the control over women.

a) There is a lack of serious research on the impacts of human trafficking on the missing and murdered Aboriginal women

Although police and government agencies have acknowledged the existence of domestic cases of human trafficking, there is much work to be done to address the particular needs of Aboriginal women. Presently, there is no reliable data available on the missing Aboriginal women and girls and domestic human trafficking. The lack of consideration for impacts of domestic trafficking on Aboriginal women has meant that traffickers have mostly gone unpunished for the coercion of women into sexual exploitation. In Canada, trends show that Aboriginal women and girls are disproportionately represented amongst trafficked survivors. They are considered vulnerable to this form of exploitation “due to earlier recruitment into the sex industry, recruitment by gangs, “gang-girls,” and family members, and very violent victimization in the sex industry.”

The U.S Department of State 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report acknowledged the problem of human trafficking of Aboriginal women as systemic and that Canadian girls and women, many of whom are Aboriginal, are trafficked internally for commercial sexual exploitation. Yet, six years later, the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, only mentions the need to target Aboriginal communities when developing prevention training against human trafficking as a side note of provincial initiatives. The limited focus on trafficked aboriginal women continues to be commonplace.

b) The situation of trafficking of Aboriginal women is viewed within the prostitution or sex work paradigm

“Notwithstanding the fact that (hundreds) Aboriginal girls and women have gone missing over the past thirty years (Amnesty International, 2004), domestic trafficking has not received the attention it deserves. Instead of being contextualized in a trafficking framework, sexual exploitation of Aboriginal girls is portrayed and understood as a problem of prostitution or sex work.”

Consequently, the clandestine nature of prostitution, combined with the lack of research linking domestic human trafficking of Aboriginal women, has made it virtually impossible to collect data on the phenomenon. In other words, academic and community rights organizations have been required to piece together different statistics on prostitution and sexual violence to shed light on the extent of the problem. The nature of the sex industry in Canada is defined as such:

“usually referred to as “prostitution” — ranges from female sexual slavery (the gorilla pimp) and survival sex (sale of sexual services by persons with very few other options, such as homeless youth and women in poverty) through to more bourgeois styles of sex trade (including some street prostitution) where both adults are consenting, albeit it in a way that is shaped by their gender, occupation, ethnicity, socio-economic status and cultural values.”

It is estimated that 75% of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse. Of these girls, half were under the age of 14 and of that category, one quarter were under the age of 7 years old. In addition, girls from different Aboriginal communities across Canada are overrepresented in prostitution in Canada, accounting for ‘14% to 60% of the participants across various regions in Canada’. These statistics demonstrate the troubling reality of many Aboriginal youth and the particular vulnerability of this segment of the population towards being lured into domestic trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. There are numerous ploys used by traffickers, including using airports, schools and bars as points of recruitment. As well, love bombing where a boyfriend will seduce and emotionally manipulate a young girl is common place. Too often social media and online commercial services are used as a means to make false promises and lure young girls out of their communities.

c) Tech-related violence against women (TRVAW) is used by human traffickers to lure young women

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been used to manipulate, isolate and control young women. While it has revolutionised the way that people share information and communicate with each other, it had also created numerous means for traffickers to more easily recruit, harm, and exploit victims/survivors without fear of being arrested and prosecuted. ICTs have been linked to increased TRVAW for the purpose of human trafficking. Human traffickers have been known to use the following technologies as form of coercion, deceit and violence against women:

  • Newsgroups: sites for exchange of information.

  • Web message and bulletin boards

  • Websites and search engines

  • Chat rooms: real time communication; no messages are archived or stored, and no log files are maintained.

  • File Transfer Protocol (FTP): effective file exchange on the internet, allows users direct access to another’s computer hard drive to upload and download files.

  • Peer to Peer networks and file swapping programs: used to share illegal material by finding and downloading files on online networks without leaving traceable transmissions.

  • Encryption: can be used to disguise the content of files.

  • Mobile internet systems

Particularly applicable to the situation experienced by Aboriginal women, traffickers lie about love interests and employment opportunities in the big Canadian cities, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. This often results in Aboriginal women being far from their communities and support networks in case of rights violations. Finally, the lack of public transportation in isolated communities, leads many girls to hitchhike across vast territories. This increases their vulnerability to kidnapping and human trafficking.

Where is the justice? Challenges for Aboriginal women to seek justice from TRVAW and human trafficking

a) Failure to investigate violent crimes against Aboriginal women

The extreme violence experienced by Aboriginal women in accessing justice was highlighted by the Amnesty International in 2009. Their report entitled “Canada: Follow up to the Concluding Observation of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination” explores why there is a systemic refusal to address sexual violence by local authorities and the judiciary, particularly when advocating for justice by Aboriginal women against human trafficking. It states that “these acts of violence against Indigenous women may be motivated by racism, or may be carried out in the expectation that society’s indifference to the welfare and safety of Indigenous women will allow the perpetrators to escape justice.”

The lack of concern for crimes perpetrated against Aboriginal women can be seen in the limited investigation of the crime. Pauline and Herb Muskego, parents of a missing Aboriginal woman, stress the frustration experienced with the lengthy wait for the investigators to take their missing daughter claims seriously:

‘When my daughter went missing, it just seemed like an uphill battle for a while trying to get the police to help us find her… Daleen may be one of the 500 murdered and missing aboriginal women [in 2015, RCMP identified 1,181 missing and murdered Aboriginal women], but she is more than just a statistic. She was our daughter. She was my granddaughter’s mother. She was a sister to her brothers. She was a wife to her husband. She was a cousin, an aunt, a friend. She was granddaughter to her grandmother.’

b) Aboriginal women are often re-victimised by the judicial system and those who have power

Aboriginal women are more likely to be re-victimized by the judicial system based on lack of information concerning their rights and the abuse of power by judicial figures of authorities.

The lack of an Aboriginal perspective in the judicial system, nominal hiring of Aboriginal legal professionals, the limited knowledge of a rights-based approach, gender-based violence, language barriers and previous failed attempts within the judiciary system, make it particularly challenging for Aboriginal women to use to judiciary system to seek justice for sexual related offenses, especially human trafficking.

Abuse of authority and gender based violence has become standard practices for Aboriginal women negotiating the system. The Judge Ramsey Case is a flagrant example of the judicial abuse of power against native girls in Canada. Judge Ramsey was sentenced to seven years for the crime of “sexual assault causing bodily harm, three counts of obtaining the sexual services of someone under 18, and breach of trust in his position as a provincial court judge”. What was particularly relevant in this case was the fact that the judge used his legal authority to intimidate the Aboriginal girls into performing acts that other sex workers refused to carry out. He specifically made distinctions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal sex-workers, stating that no one would believe the Aboriginal women during the trial as they were considered to be worth “less than whores.” This case demonstrates the particularly devastating interaction that Aboriginal women can have when negotiating with the judicial system. It also contributes to mainstream ignorance of sexual violence and exploitation. It highlights some of the reasons behind the lack of trust of the judicial system and why Aboriginal women victims of human trafficking or sexual exploitation offences may choose to willingly or unwilling exclude themselves from the available legislative protections against human trafficking.

There is an obvious need to evaluate the impact of domestic human trafficking of Aboriginal women in Canada and find culturally appropriate solutions that support the empowering of Aboriginal women and local knowledge. This does not end the abuse and discrimination experienced by Aboriginal women throughout colonization, residential schools and the contemporary criminal justice system. Rather, the cry for justice by the families of the murdered and missing Aboriginal women, and the subsequent decision to the Canadian government to hold national inquiries on the issue, will force all levels of government to acknowledge that presently the actors responsible for the administration of justice have failed to protect Aboriginal women against sexual related violence, tech-related violence and human trafficking.

Domestic human trafficking of Aboriginal women is a national, economic and cultural problem. It cannot be isolated to the activities of a few ‘criminal types’ and can only be defeated by examining the root causes of this problem. It is the realization that trafficking in persons is caused by an unequal economic system that qualifies an individual’s worth by place of origin, gender and ethnicity. The Canadian government must remain publicly and financially committed to the eradication of trafficking in persons. The government has begun to take the necessary steps to protect Aboriginal women from becoming victims of profit from economic and sexual slavery. The journey has started but we have a long way to go!

Image by Thien used under Creative Commons License.

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