Dedicated to Sally.
This is to be the first in a series of posts dealing with the issue of the sexual trafficking of aboriginal children in Canada.
Sex trafficking in Canada has of late started to gain some important recognition in both the media and the government, and has been rightly receiving international condemnation. It is a positive change, and one sorely needed in such a supposedly healthy and vibrant society. However, most of the attention has focused on international trafficking, the smuggling of women from places like Eastern Europe and Asian into Canada to service the sex trade that operates just under the surface of our culture in places like massage parlors, strip clubs, and on the internet. This is an important topic, but these posts will be focusing on a very under-reported facet of the human sex trade in Canada, the domestic trafficking of Aboriginal girls. This first post will focus on causes, specifically the so-called “push factor” of their home life.
The definition of sex trafficking is still an ongoing subject of debate among academics and lawmakers, struggling to differentiate prostitution and trafficking and sex slavery, deciding whether to include movement as part of the conditions, debating voluntary sex trade, etc. For the purpose of this discussion, because we are focusing on the child sex trade, any form of financial transaction that involves children and sexual abuse will be considered trafficking. Without getting into the debate about prostitution as a willing trade, I believe no minor can be considered as willingly entering the “sex industry”. The domestic aspect comes in because all of these girls, as Aboriginal Canadians, are by definition domestic, they are not brought into Canada from other countries, although many are trafficked down to the United States.
To begin with, a general overview of Aboriginal children’s involvement in sex trafficking in Canada. While statistics on any topic that is black market or “underground” are notoriously difficult to accrue and tend to vary, the numbers are sobering, even at the low end of the spectrum. While representing just four percent (4%) of women in Canada, Aboriginal girls make up anywhere from thirty to 80 percent (30-80%) of the girls being trafficked, depending on the study and location. Examples include fifty percent (50%) representation in Vancouver and Ottawa, and eighty percent (80%) in Winnipeg. This testimony was offered in open court:
“Runner, who heads programming at New Directions in Winnipeg, said there are “hundreds” of teen and pre-teen girls working the streets, with an even greater number abused by adults behind closed doors. The youngest she has heard of was eight, and the average age is about 13. She told court that 80 per cent of child prostitution occurs in gang houses and “trick pads.” Runner estimated that 70 per cent of the girls are aboriginal” (2)
Winnipeg, a provincial capital, boasts a population of around 660 000 people, and while fair sized, is not a large city by any means. For there to be hundred of aboriginal girls being trafficked just on the streets there is horrid, and one only has to imagine how those numbers would extrapolate to the larger cities in Canada, like Vancouver and Montreal, which have very active trafficking activities. Advocacy groups estimate that up to fifteen thousand (15000) women and children are victimized by trafficking every year in Canada (3). When you consider that the average age entry in sex trafficking is 13, that means that thousands of aboriginal girls are being trafficked in Canada every year; even using the most conservative number of around a third, that’s 5000 aboriginal girls every year (I would also like to point out that 13 is the average, that means that a great many are victimized below that age). And that is conservative. A study in Vancouver estimated 5500 sex trafficking victims in that city alone (5), which would translate into roughly 2750 aboriginal girls, in just one city. These figures are sobering, shocking, dismal, pathetic, and any other adjective you could think to add to the list, especially when you consider that these statistics are almost guaranteed to be low. Needless to say, this is an unacceptable state of affairs.
In begining to examine why, we will start with the home life of these children. These figures are equally shocking. As described in my previous post (No Sound Heard : Violence Against Aboriginal Women in Canada), there is an epidemic of domestic violence against women in the aboriginal community. This is not limited to adult women.Some studies show that up to 96% of aboriginal children being trafficked reported childhood sexual abuse and up to 81% reported childhood physical abuse; other showed slightly lower numbers, indicating childhood abuse rates at 80%, (1, pg 9), others lower at 33%-50% (1, pg11). (This discrepancy can be attributed to small sample sizes, regional differences and different age groups being studied (some studies included aboriginal women above the age of 18), but needless to say, it is prevalent). This is nearly unimaginable, and it is not occurring only once, these children are being repeatedly abused, one study putting the average number of abusers at four (1, pg 10). To be clear, this is also a huge problem in non aboriginal trafficking victims, but the numbers are lower. For all trafficking victims, childhood sexual assault is a common theme, and directly related to becoming later victimized by sex traffickers.
The Childhood abuse these children suffer leads to dire consequences. The least of these are reduced learning capacity, where the children have difficulty in schools, which results in lowered chances of higher education and feeds into trafficking by removing options for self-sufficiency. If these children cannot see a future for themselves, they are more likely to accept whatever is presented, or be more vulnerable to predatory lies by pimps and traffickers offering them money or a future career.
Far more destructive is the effects childhood sexual abuse has on their mental and emotional processes. These children are damaged internally by the abuse. It affects their sense of security and stability; if there is no safety at home, they will not expect to find it anywhere else. If they cannot trust their family members or family friends, who can they trust? They grow up believing that the world is only their to hurt and abuse them, that they are not worthy of love and caring. Worse still, children have the tendency to blame themselves for the abuse, they feel that somehow they are bad, and deserve such treatment. They intrinsically know what is happening is wrong, and assume the guilt. The cumulative affects this destruction can have on their psyche is evident in prevalence of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) among trafficked females, which is put as high as 72 % (1, pg 10) which is “among the highest reported in populations where PTSD has been studied, including battered women, combat veterans, childhood trauma survivors, rape survivors, and torture survivors” (1, pg 10). Anyone who pays attention to the news will be familiar with the toll PTSD is taking on veterans in the US, and the rash of suicides to which it is causally linked (6). Symptoms include (but are in no way limited to) : inability to feel positive about oneself, feeling numb, lack of interest in what is going on, memory problems and inability to think about the traumatic events, overwhelming guilt or shame and inability to form relationships. A cluster of these symptoms is similar to dissociative disorder, and it does not take a PHD to be able to see how these children would be easily manipulated or lead into trafficking, especially when the trauma is ongoing and continuous; they would have to dissociate just to maintain some semblance of sanity in a world where they are victimized over and over, night after night. They become easy prey for traffickers because they are not present in their reality, they can be lead around easily.
Another very destructive, but perhaps more insidious result of this trauma is the internalization these children do of sexual abuse as normal. They learn to believe that that is an appropriate way to show affection or is what “relationships” are about. They learn to think that they only way they can receive love is through violence or abuse (7) . They will loose the ability to develop normal relationships or even friendships. This can lead into trafficking as it makes them accepting of those behaviors when predators do it to them; they stop recognizing it as wrong, as abuse. It can also have a longer term effect. If they manage to escape the trafficking and return to “civilian” life, they are much more likely to be with a partner who abuses them (and this is prevalent in indigenous women’s life), thus perpetuating their internalization and acceptance of the abuse. This can be even worse if they have children, because they are more likely to be complicit in the abuse of their children; this is one of the ways child sexual abuse and trafficking becomes inter-generational, especially in aboriginal communities. If the mothers believe that sexual abuse is normal, or even just not wrong, they will be much less likely to attempt to stop it, or report it, or support the victims, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Their children become the next round of abused and trafficked girls feed into the system.
Perhaps the most disturbing root cause mentioned in relation to the home of abused children was familial trafficking, where the family itself trafficked the children, or pushed them into trafficking, for financial gain (1, pg 12, 14). This is associated with the abject poverty that most aboriginal families live in, as well as structural factors like inter-generational abuse, residual affects of the residential school system, etc. It seems unthinkable, but there are aboriginal parents who not only abuse their children, but sell them to abusers. The acceptance of abuse must be so ingrained and the social conditions must be so terrible for this to somehow becomes acceptable. There are historical examples, and it does occur in other parts of the world, but in those examples, selling your children or slavery is either the norm (historical) or legal/quasi-legal (current, see Morocco for example).
One final way that the roots of sexual abuse lead to trafficking we shall examine is the relationship to care facilities and homelessness. Sexual abuse and the havoc it wrecks in a child’s life, combined with structural factors like poverty, lead to a large amount of aboriginal children either being placed in the care of the state or running away. Both are statistically correlated with increased risk of trafficking. Homelessness, which is a natural reaction to abuse and perceived lack of opportunity, was reported from 80-98 percent of trafficking victims (1, pgs10-11) and an US study states “the majority of minors who become involved in prostitution are runaway or thrown away children from abusive or otherwise dysfunctional homes” (8). Being homeless, especially if they run away from a reserve to a large urban center, causes aboriginal girls to be easy targets for trafficking. Lack of economic opportunity, systemic racism, lack of friends/family and basic lack of shelter make them easy targets. They can be lured (or “groomed”) very quickly if they have nothing, needing a place to stay or some food or even just some attention. It also makes them more vulnerable to the more coercive methods, like drug addiction or sheer violence. If no one knows who they are or where to look for them, they will not likely be missed if they disappear.
State care is also strongly correlated with both child sexual abuse and trafficking in aboriginal children. Several Canadian studies list it as a major factor (1, pg 12,13,18), and in the US, it is believed that 59% of victims of trafficking come from the state/foster care system (9). The same factors that lead children to run away also force them into the state care system: poverty and lack of adequate housing, violence and abuse, drug/alcohol use. It as a sad irony that indigenous children are forced into government care because of factors that the government is at least partially responsible for. The damage the residential system did to aboriginal culture and to aboriginals as individuals is well documented, and the closing of the system was well warranted, but the fact is we have replaced it with something equally as destructive, and more pervasive. Around half (49%) of children in foster care are aboriginal, despite representing only 4% of Canada’s population, or looking at it another way, 4% of all aboriginal children are in foster care, compared to 0.3 percent of all other canadian children (10). These numbers alone are tragic, but when combined with the high ratio of foster care recipients involved in trafficking, it is obvious many aboriginal children are being “funneled” into trafficking by the system.
The picture here is bleak. Aboriginal girls are vastly over-represented in sex trafficking, and the roots to this problem start in the home. Poverty, squalid living conditions, educational deficits, drug and alcohol abuse and systemic racism set the stage for childhood trauma in the form of violence and sexual abuse. The rates of this are much greater than in the population of Canada as a whole. This leads to mental and emotional trauma that can last a lifetime. This leads to monstrous rates of child seizures by the state. This leads to running away from home and homelessness. As we have seen, all of these factors are highly correlated with being a victim of sex trafficking. We have to take drastic and immediate steps to help free these girls from a life of violence and abuse.
The first step, perhaps the most important, is to provide these children with stable, peaceful homes, with connections to their communities and culture. The violence against aboriginal girls and women must stop. These children are being systematically driven into trafficking. I am not an anthropologist, or an expert on Aboriginal cultures and traditions, but I am certain that these issues were not prevalent before colonization. This is not to romanticize aboriginal culture; they had wars, they had kidnapping of women, they no doubt had criminals and bad people, but the culture of violence towards women that is prevalent today is a reaction to a systemic attempt to wipe them out as a people. As a culture, we must stop exacerbating this problem, we must stop treating aboriginals as second class citizens, we must stop stealing their children and placing them in (predominantly white) foster care or group homes. We must change the way we interact with them as a people, and as individuals.
The main battlefront though must, by necessity, be within the the aboriginal communities themselves. The cultural forces pressing upon them will unfortunately probably not be changing quickly; it is incumbent upon aboriginals, specifically the men, to change how they behave towards women and children. This will be different in the various cultures and regions that make up the aboriginal community, but the effort must be systemic and sustained. The cultural shift must come from within, if it is forced on them, it will not work. I have known many aboriginal people, they are wonderful people, intelligent, caring passionate, funny, just like the rest of Canadians. There are many brave aboriginals already standing up and speaking out against the violence, women and men who see the need for a change. We, as Canadians, should help and support them as much as we can, but not direct or impose upon them. The current state of affairs is not acceptable. No child sexual abuse or trafficking is, but for it to be so prevalent in one group of Canadians is unforgivable, it reeks of racism and cultural genocide, and we are all better than this.
- Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Aboriginal Women and Girls, Native Women’s Association of Canada, March 2014
- National Post, “Child Trafficking Under Our Radar: MP”, Katie Rook, Friday, April 11th, 2008