How Ontario is fighting the trafficking of Indigenous women and girls

To mark Human Trafficking Awareness Day, speaks with Collin Graham, of the Ontario Native Women’s Association, about recognizing the signs of exploitation — and learning from survivors
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Feb 22, 2019
Collin Graham, who oversees ONWA’s Indigenous Anti-Human Trafficking Liaison program in Thunder Bay, stands next to a red dress symbolizing missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Courtesy of Collin Graham)



Between 2009 and 2016, there were 1,220 incidents of human trafficking reported to police across Canada. Two-thirds of those cases were reported to police in Ontario. The actual number of cases may be higher, though, as human trafficking is notoriously hard to track and is believed to be a vastly underreported crime.

This February 22 marks the second annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Ontario.

According to the Ontario Native Women’s Association, Indigenous women and girls in Canada are “especially likely” to be victims of trafficking. That’s why, in 2017, the provincial government partnered with the Ontario Native Women’s Association, developing an Indigenous-led strategy to support victims of human trafficking. The strategy resulted in the creation of the Indigenous Anti-Human Trafficking Liaison program, which employs six liaisons based in hubs around Ontario, including in Thunder Bay, Ottawa, and Toronto. The liaisons do outreach work and build relationships with service providers in their regions in order to provide victims with support. spoke with Collin Graham, a community development manager at ONWA in Thunder Bay who oversees the Indigenous Anti-Human Trafficking Liaison program, about its innovative approach to combatting exploitation.

What does human trafficking look like in Ontario?

I think it’s important to recognize that wherever you are in Ontario, human trafficking exists. What that looks like is very different from community to community, as there are very different issues that each community faces.

For example, in Thunder Bay, we happen to see issues related to the drug trade, as well as gang violence. That could be different in an isolated rural community, which might see it more in the sense of survival, or exploitation disguised as work. So it all depends. The best experts that can tell you what it looks like, community to community, are survivors.

Exploitation isn’t what we think it is — it’s not putting people in shipping containers and shipping them off to other places. It happens right in our own backyards, and we don’t look at it as such.

What are some signs that someone is being trafficked?

That depends on what group you’re working with. In my experience, working with youth, we’re looking for signs such as teens that are no longer consistently coming to programs or who are withdrawing a lot from the program and the workers. Oftentimes, they may have unexplained items or “gifts.”

Oftentimes, there is unexplained bruising. When people get caught up in exploitation, there’s a lot of violence involved, whether it be from other people working in the same trade as they are or violence that comes from their pimps or boyfriends. There can be other unexplained markings, such as branding or tattoos — those tattoos can be directly related to gangs, or they could be something as simple as the boyfriend’s name or a dollar sign. Sometimes we see a tattoo that says “Property of.”

How does ONWA’s liaison program work?

The liaison program intended to strategically place [liaisons] around the province in hubs where there is known trafficking of people. The role of the liaison in the community is to build capacity and awareness with other service providers, as well as network with those service providers. We did a full environmental scan to see what services were available to women who were experiencing exploitation. Out of that, we came to learn that, although there was a lot of immediate crisis response, there was no long-term or curative-practice programming.

We then took it to the next level, which was community engagement across the province, in our regions and in our cities, with women that were survivors. We recognized right away that in order for the strategy to be successful, all the work had to be led through survivor experience. We don’t believe in prescribing — we believe in being an amplifier for the voices of those who’ve experienced trafficking or exploitation. There’s no one better to safety-plan than women who have experienced human trafficking and exploitation.

Can you tell me more about why ONWA uses a survivor-led approach?

What makes our work unique is that we recognize that the real experts are survivors. We know that when we build the capacity of a survivor, we’re building the next generation of leadership when it comes to providing safety for future generations. Everything that we do comes from a place of empowerment and building survivor capacity, so that they can live up to their inherent role of being community leaders in safety.

When I first started doing this work, one of the first people I reached out to was my knowledge-keeper. I remember when I sat down with her, I said to her, “Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world.” And she corrected me — I’m so grateful that she did. She said, “No, prostitution is not the oldest profession in the world.” She told me that it was the third. The second-oldest profession is agriculture, and the first profession has always been motherhood. The moment she told me that motherhood was the oldest profession, I knew that if we were going to do this work, it had to be done in a way that fostered nurturing — nurturing for women, young women, young boys, and young two-spirited people.

What do you advise people to do if they suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking?

There are a lot of things you can do, depending on what resources are available in your community. In Thunder Bay, there are multiple places where people can reach out for help. At ONWA, we can actually initiate a conversation, because it’s also really important not to get some of these signs mixed up with, say, teen angst.

Our program is 100 per cent voluntary, so people that need help usually come to us. As well, our outreach team goes out and makes connections and builds relationships with people who may be involved in the street life.

The biggest message when it comes to standing up against human trafficking is: we all have an inherent role and responsibility for standing up together to start looking out for our young people.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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