Predators are taking advantage of women looking for love on sites like POF.com.
I’ve been reporting on human trafficking in Inuit communities for more than a month now and I’ve heard some pretty shocking stories in the process. I’ve also encountered a range of reactions from people when I bring up the subject: from full-on denial by some government officials and Inuit organizations, to social workers bursting into tears over the phone.
Last August, VICE reported that First Nations women and children were being sold into the sex trade on ships crossing the Canadian and U.S. borders. For the first time, a recent report offers a glimpse into the sex trafficking of Inuit women and girls within Canada, igniting discussion and debate. Some RCMP even pulled their quotes from the report after learning that reporters were sniffing around.
The 146-page report (part one and part two), funded by the Department of Justice and written by independent consultant Helen Roos, outlines a host of human trafficking examples in Nunavut and Ottawa, and other “clandestine activities” that might lead to human trafficking and other types of exploitation. Most of the information in the report comes from anecdotal evidence and conversations with government and health officials, law enforcement, and Inuit organizations.
Trafficking in Nunavut extends to children as young as 10, who are allegedly being “prostituted for money or contraband” and parents being paid between $15,000 and $20,000 for their daughters, aged 13 to 18, to be flown to southern Canadian cities. The report cites other attempts to “buy and sell Inuit babies, children, and teenaged youth” and that a “spate of young Inuit girls under 18 years of age” were “lured and groomed” by a local to travel as “drug mules” to Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.
One case study tells the story of an Inuk girl who was “prostituted” by her mother, a “survival sex worker,” in Ottawa at 10 years of age for “an extra fee.”
Extreme poverty and a lack of social services common in northern Inuit communities amplify risks of exploitation and human trafficking. There is also a deep mistrust of law enforcement. Clients of an Ottawa Inuit addiction Centre interviewed in the report describe their Nunavut communities as “war zones.”
I spoke with Roos, who told me that human trafficking in Inuit communities, “the luring and grooming and baiting for prostitution…really started about 20 years ago.”
The Inuit population is “susceptible to being lured by traffickers to move south to escape,” Roos’s report says. This “luring” can occur through various means, including Facebook, and dating websites like Plenty of Fish.
“They’re looking for a date just like anyone else, they’re looking for someone to take care of them. They’re looking for love, and Plenty of Fish is notorious,” Roos said.
Another case study describes the lengthy plight of “Mary,” an Inuk girl who met a man on Plenty of Fish and was “trafficked into forced sex work.” Mary moved out of child services in Ontario when she turned 18, living on the streets and off of social assistance. After moving in with a man who didn’t reciprocate her feelings, she turned to Plenty of Fish in hopes of finding a boyfriend.
A man contacted her in 2010 and told her that he hired dancers for “adult entertainment spots,” and asked if she would work for him. She started work at a Mississauga-area strip club and was eventually “prostituted” into “forced sex” by “pimps” who kept most of the money, giving her a small amount for food. When she finally confronted her most recent pimp about the money, he threw her out. She went to the police and told them what she had been through. Last year she testified against her pimp, but he was found not guilty at trial due to “lack of evidence.” He is now on Peel Region’s vice unit radar.
Roos recalls the first human trafficking charge that was laid by the RCMP in Nunavut last June. A 31-year-old mother in Pond Inlet, and dating site Badoo.com user, allegedly lured a vulnerable Inuk girl into her home and “pimped her out” to men in the community. The human trafficking charge was reduced to prostituting a minor, and the case will be heard this spring.
In another disheartening case study, a middle-aged Inuk women living in Iqaluit met an “African suitor” through Plenty of Fish. She flew to Europe to marry him, agreed to “wait to consummate the marriage until she sponsored him to come to Canada,” and set up joint bank accounts and credit cards. Upon arriving in Canada, he spent all her savings, forcing her to declare bankruptcy, and cut off all ties after the requisite sponsorship wait period. He was granted full Canadian citizenship and lives in Ottawa.
While not a case of human trafficking as such, Ms. Roos writes that this is another example of exploitation, deception, and victimization experienced by some Inuit women going online looking for love.
Madeleine Redfern, a former mayor of Iqaluit, says that while the internet may be used to “lure” young Inuit women and girls, it has also been pivotal for getting them out of some exploitative circumstances.
She told me she knows two Inuit women who took jobs in the Yukon in the last couple of years. After they arrived, their employer threatened that they would lose their jobs and housing if they didn’t have sex with him. One girl complied and kept her job while the other refused and reached out to Redfern over Facebook.
“I was able to connect her with the police in the Yukon, with social services, and provide assistance so that she didn’t have to find herself engaging in a sexual relationship with her employer, a much older man,” she says.
Redfern said that human trafficking in Inuit communities is a “very uncomfortable topic” and that this report is the first real instance that this issue is actually being aired publicly. “But it’s just the beginning,” she says.
She has experienced resistance from some members of the Inuit community when discussing possible instances of human trafficking, which doesn’t surprise her as “there’s a huge stigma attached.”
And the north is a “perfect storm” with respect to sexual exploitation and trafficking of Inuit women and children, she says. High rates of poverty, food insecurity, and severely overcrowded housing limits people’s options and can lead to desperate situations where people are selling female family members into the sex trade.
But Conservative MP and self-proclaimed abolitionist and anti-slavery advocate, Joy Smith, says that issues around poverty and overcrowded housing in northern communities are not the reason why Inuit and other vulnerable populations are trafficked or exploited.
MP Smith told me in a phone call that the reason she believes this happens, “especially in Inuit and Aboriginal circles, is because they are very soft, trusting, beautiful people, and people can, in a way, manipulate the conversation.”
She blames trafficking and exploitation on deception and that it’s the “predators” who need to be targeted first and foremost. “It’s not because they don’t have housing that they are exploited,” she says, “predators themselves [see] an opportunity where they could lie and coerce.”
Roos writes that there is no easy solution to this “very difficult crime,” but that Nunavut leaders “cannot be complacent on this issue.” "If Nunavut has become a Vietnam or Thailand or Cambodia because people’s desperation is so great that they feel that their only remedy is letting their child go with a 30-year-old man… then there are some fundamental questions here for Canada." @rp_browne