Domestic Sex Trafficking of Aboriginal Girls in Canada: Issues and Implications

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by Anupriya Sethi

The discourses on sex trafficking of women and girls in Canada continue to highlight international trafficking thus positioning Canada more as a transit and destination country than an origin country. Notwithstanding the fact that 500 Aboriginal girls and women (and maybe more) 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. Similarly, despite the wide-ranging and often complex problems facing Aboriginal peoples today, policies continue to be dominated by a limited range of issues like health, violence, poverty and the criminal justice system (Stout & Kipling, 1998). This coupled with the tendency in policy decisions to analyze one issue at a time as against a holistic approach limits, if not excludes, the examination of linkages with the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal girls in Canada.

Scope of Domestic Trafficking

There is no national level data that tracks the transient Aboriginal population and their trafficking in sex trade. Lack of focus and/or clear understanding of domestic trafficking since
sexual exploitation is often conflated with sex work, underground nature of the crime, and mobility of the trafficked persons across various cities, often make it difficult to assess the actual numbers. Moreover, majority of the cases of trafficking go unreported as girls are scared to take action against their traffickers, resulting in the data on trafficked persons being partial, varied and debatable.  In the absence of actual figures on domestic sex trafficking in Canada, a look at the number of Aboriginal girls in prostitution can help throw some light on the extent of the issue. First Nations girls are over-represented in prostitution with an especially high number of youth ranging from 14% - 60% across various regions in Canada (Assistant Deputy Ministers' Committee, 2001). National data in Canada reveals that 75% of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse, 50% are under 14, and almost 25% are younger than 7 years of age (Correctional Service of Canada, cited in McIvor and Nahanee, 1998). In Vancouver alone, 60% of sexually exploited youth are Aboriginal (Urban Native Youth Association, 2002). One key informant reported that children as young as 9 are sexually exploited in Saskatoon and the average age of being forced into prostitution is 11 or 12.  Although the limited data available on sexual exploitation focuses primarily on urban centers like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, it does not imply that the issue is less chronic in smaller cities and rural Aboriginal communities. Only that it is not widely known or acknowledged (Blackstock, Clarke, Cullen, D'Hondt, and Formsma, 2004).

Recruitment Methods

Coercion and deception are the underlying elements in the various methods that traffickers use to force Aboriginal girls into sex work. Consultations with key informants of this research project revealed some of the ways girls are recruited.

Airports: A couple of key informants identified airports as the point of recruitment in big cities like Montreal, which are witnessing a growing movement of Aboriginal girls, especially Inuit, from Northern communities. Traffickers often know someone in the community who informs them about the plans of the girls moving to the city. Upon their arrival at the airport, traffickers allure the girls under the pretext of providing a place to stay or access to resources. In the words of a key informant working as an Aboriginal outreach worker, 'Girls tend to believe in the promises of the traffickers as they are young, naive and vulnerable in a new and big city. They are unsuspecting of the motives of the traffickers, since they belong to communities that have a culture of welcoming strangers'.

Schools: In cities like Winnipeg, Vancouver and others with high concentrations of Aboriginal peoples, traffickers are increasingly targeting schools as recruiting grounds. Traffickers entice Aboriginal girls, as young as in grade six or seven, on school playgrounds or on their way to school by promising them gifts, a good life style or getting them addicted to drugs (West, 2005). These girls are too young and vulnerable to understand or take action against sexual exploitation.

Bars: Several key informants discussed 'bars' as a fertile recruiting ground successfully targeted by traffickers. Young Aboriginal girls who move from reserves to big cities might go to bars to "bridge the isolation" and connect with other Aboriginal peoples, especially since community centres in many cities close early in the day. Traffickers frequent these places to befriend girls, by buying them a drink or offering to help connect with other Native peoples, and later sexually exploit them.

Boyfriends: In many cases, traffickers pose as boyfriends and seduce young girls by buying them expensive gifts and/or emotionally manipulating them. Hence, it is not uncommon for sexually exploited girls to refer to the traffickers as their boyfriends. Due to their emotional and economic dependence on the traffickers, many girls refuse to identify themselves as sexually exploited (Thrasher, 2005).

Girls as recruiters: In yet another method, trafficked girls, as young as 11, are forced to recruit other girls (Urban Native Youth Association, 2002). When young girls approach their counterparts with dreams of a better lifestyle, it is real and convincing. Girls working as recruiters, in most cases, have no choice but to agree to the wishes of the trafficker due to fear or, in some cases, to meet their survival needs. It often results in a hierarchal set up wherein recruiters take the share of the earnings of the girls they have recruited. As recruiters move up in the hierarchal chain, they aim to get rid of the street work.

Dancers: Aboriginal girls, recruited as dancers at a young age, are frequently moved across provinces for their dance shows. Over a period of time, they lose ties with their home and community thus becoming isolated and vulnerable. When these girls grow old, appear less attractive and are forced out of dancing, they are sexually exploited for their survival needs.

Internet: Traffickers are increasingly using internet as a means to entice young Aboriginal girls, especially in rural communities (Thrasher, 2005), with the charm of a big city or false promises of a good job. Once these girls are in the cities, away from their family and friends, they are trafficked into the sex trade.

Hitchhiking: First Nations intergenerational poverty, lack of recreation and social activities for youth on-reserve, and inadequate public transportation facilities force young girls to hitch hike thus making them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The Yellow Head Highway in BC, also known as the Highway of Tears, along which several Aboriginal girls have gone missing or found murdered (Wilson, 2004), is a glaring example.

Policy Recommendations

Acknowledgment and Recognition:

The first step in addressing domestic trafficking of Aboriginal girls is to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. Countries like Canada are increasingly under pressure to tighten their borders and undertake measures on the prosecution aspect of human trafficking, especially in the wake of US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The over emphasis on criminalizing the movement of people across borders has shifted the focus away from trafficking as a human rights issue. Moreover, the discourses in transnational trafficking in Canada do not include domestic trafficking of Aboriginal girls within and across provinces. It is erroneous and unjust to consider domestic trafficking as less serious than transnational trafficking because the issues of control, isolation and exploitation that girls face at the hands of traffickers are severe irrespective of whether it is cross-cultural or cross-border (Bowen, 2006).

Honor Indigenous Knowledge:

There is a serious need to recognize and honor Indigenous knowledge (Stout & Kipling, 1998) by engaging "Aboriginal people as knowledge-keepers". Awareness and education programs are effective when implemented through participatory, interactive and inclusive processes that acknowledge the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. A significant amount of research has been done on Aboriginal communities. While continuing further research in unexplored areas, the critical knowledge that already exists needs to be utilized and acted upon. The already identified gaps such as homelessness, poverty and unemployment demand action, as against further research and deliberations.

Establish a national level strategy for domestic trafficking: Due to the lack of understanding or acknowledgment of domestic trafficking, there is no national level strategy to address, both the immediate causes and the larger systematic issues, which lead to the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal girls. Key informants expressed frustration at the disconnect that exists among the various levels of the government and other agencies like law enforcement, justice, health care and child welfare. Considering that the issues identified in domestic trafficking fall under the mandate of various agencies, standardized protocols and guidelines are essential to bring together initiatives of different stakeholders. A uniform approach shall help in sharing information and ideas, increasing awareness about domestic trafficking, and enabling different agencies to work towards common goals.

Bridge the Policy-Practice Gap:

Many participants pointed out the existing policy-practice disconnect reflected in the policy decisions. Although both the grass root agencies and policy makers are experts in their respective areas, the communication gap between them is rather unproductive. A limited, if not negligible, understanding of the other side often creates and widens the gap between what is required and what ends up being delivered thus leading to quick fix solutions rather than addressing the fundamental problems.

Input from communities, women's groups and grass root agencies in the policy-making processes can help ensure an informed decision-making. Furthermore, it is crucial to engage in a dialogue with the trafficked Aboriginal girls regarding various social policy issues that affect them since their input is based on lived experiences. At the same time, it is important to ensure that these girls do not end up being a poster child. The story of one girl should not be regarded as a blanket experience of all sexually exploited girls, each with their own struggles and disadvantages.

Preventive rather than a Reactionary Approach:

One key informant remarked that traditionally Aboriginal peoples view life as a cycle of seven generations. The wisdom from the past three generations is used to guide the present, which is the fourth generation, and lay the foundation for the future three generations. The understanding of this vision is not reflected in social policies today, which focus on immediate and reactionary measures instead of combining it with long term prevention strategies. Funding and services should be directed towards prevention programs like educating and mobilizing young girls in Aboriginal communities, raising awareness regarding the dangers of sex trafficking, and increasing collaboration between urban Aboriginals and communities on-reserve so that girls do not lose touch with their culture and homes. Funding should be granted for longer periods, as prevention work usually involves implementing a long-term strategy, which does not necessarily deliver quick results measurable in numbers.

Culturally Relevant Services:

Aboriginal girls should have access to culturally relevant services that move beyond crisis intervention and are long enough to help them make a successful transition to a safe and healthy life. Key areas in service provision should include culture specific safe transitional housing for sexually exploited girls and their children, establishment of healing centres and shelters specifically to meet the needs of trafficked girls, and adequate child welfare managed by Aboriginal organizations. The existing welfare services should be made more accessible. For instance, increased access to programs like income security, flexible curfew times in shelters, follow-up support, and reduced wait times in treatment centres. Similarly, harm reduction should be recognized as a useful measure for the health and safety of sexually exploited girls. Services like needles, food, condoms, and education regarding HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases should be readily available.


As observed in the Aboriginal Justice Enquiry of Manitoba, "Aboriginal women and their children suffer tremendously as victims in contemporary Canadian society. They are the victims of racism, of sexism and of unconscionable levels of domestic violence" (Hamilton & Sinclair, 1991). Instead of conveniently labeling domestic trafficking of Aboriginal girls as 'sex work', the holistic approach to dealing with it should begin by an acknowledgement of the problem from the various sections of the Canadian society. As recommended in the Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, state parties should recognize some groups of women as particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation including Aboriginal women (Lynne, 2005). The fundamental issues that put Aboriginal girls in disadvantageous situations today underline the importance of recognizing and addressing their sexual exploitation as integral to the dialogue on trafficking within Canada.

This excerpt from the full article are reprinted with the author's permission.



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