KENORA — Lake of the Woods boasts 15,000 islands and more than 100,000 kilometres of shoreline — more coast than Lake Superior — so it’s easy enough to get lost once you leave Kenora’s docks. For the tourists who think of themselves as “summer residents” at their cottages, locally known as camps, getting lost on the lake is a part of its appeal. Many people want that experience — the tourism-focused city of 15,000 near the Manitoba border sees its population double in the summer months.
When allegations of women and girls being forced into the sex trade on Lake of the Woods arose at a 2013 human trafficking conference in Kenora, even local social service workers were shocked. No one denies there is prostitution in northwestern Ontario. But at the conference, most attendees heard for the first time about a phenomenon involving traffickers forcing women into the sex trade to service wealthy tourists at their camps on Lake of the Woods.
“Dock girls,” as they came to be known in the local social services community, are thought to be overwhelmingly Indigenous, and typically aged 20 and younger. Some are believed to be Kenora-area residents who are brought out onto the lake, while others are thought to be transported through the city from throughout northwestern Ontario and Manitoba as part of a human trafficking circuit. Either way, though TVO was only able to find one social service worker who can say they’ve come face-to-face with a “dock girl,” they have become a focus for a program aimed at rooting out human trafficking across Ontario.
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The provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services is increasing its efforts with its $72-million on the Strategy to End Human Trafficking, launched in 2016. As part of the ongoing strategy, Kenora will receive $504,000 over three years to educate frontline hospitality workers — people who might be first-hand witnesses, such as dockhands, fast food workers, and hotel staff — on how to identify signs of human trafficking. The hope is that by doing so, the province will be able to find and assist the “dock girls” who are coerced into servicing tourists.
Despite the good intentions of those in Kenora trying to help victims of the sex trade, there is so little hard evidence for the “dock girl” phenomenon that it raises questions about whether the problem exists at all. And if it doesn’t, critics say, wouldn’t the government’s funding to combat human trafficking be better spent elsewhere?
Many signs of a problem
The Kenora Sexual Assault Centre will receive the provincial funding to lead the fight against human trafficking in the Lake of the Woods area. It will use some of the funding to hire a program manager, but the majority of the money will go towards training frontline hospitality workers to spot red flags signalling possible human trafficking. For instance, girls travelling with groups of older men can be taken as a sign. Those training sessions are slated to begin this year.
Evelyn Larsen, executive director of the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre, says most coerced sex workers in Kenora are believed to be females between the ages of 13 and 20 who were groomed into human trafficking. Many are exchanging sex for drugs.
“We know Kenora is a hub for human trafficking because girls are being moved from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay and they stop here,” Larsen says.
Kenora shares many of the characteristics of communities with high rates of human trafficking, says the leader of the provincial program. Jennifer Richardson was named the first director of Ontario’s Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office in 2016 and is leading the Strategy to End Human Trafficking for the Ministry of Community and Social Services.
Richardson says Kenora checks a number of boxes for communities with a large amount of human trafficking: a prevalence of addictions and mental health cases, high rates of missing persons, and a tourism economy (which tends to promote transient populations).
Prior to her current role, Richardson managed Manitoba’s Sexual Exploitation Unit in Winnipeg, 200 kilometres west of Kenora. Her work there made her well aware of what was happening down the highway in Ontario. Richardson, a trafficking survivor herself, has seen evidence of a human trafficking circuit between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay that she believes has operated for at least three decades.
Like Larsen, she believes that Kenora is a significant human trafficking hub because it serves as the first stop outside of Manitoba’s capital on that circuit.
Richardson also recalls encountering underage local women who were invited to “party” at cabins on Lake of the Woods. Once they arrived, they would be confined, expected to perform sexual acts, and in some cases, traffickers moved them onward through the circuit. “You could end up on an island on Lake of the Woods. You’re only getting off if the person that took you there wants you to get off,” Richardson says. But Richardson says she hasn’t seen any of these cases in more than ten years.
To confront coercive elements of the sex trade, a group of 50 organizations — including social services groups, law enforcement agencies, and community groups — formed the Kenora Coalition to End Human Trafficking in 2016 to share knowledge and resources while developing local strategies.
The elusive ‘dock girl’
Despite the coalition’s co-ordinated efforts, the dock girls have proven difficult to find. Even people working in social services and law enforcement in the Kenora area say they have rarely — if ever — encountered women who were trafficked to lakeside cottages.
Larsen, of the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre, has never personally counselled a “dock girl,” nor has her centre collected any historical data that quantifies trafficking on the lake.
Neither has the head of Kenora’s only women’s shelter. In six years managing Saakate House, executive director Kendall Trembath says she has dealt with two cases of trafficked women, neither of whom fit the “dock girl” profile. “I’ve personally never had any involvement assisting people in that situation but … It’s something we’re aware of.”
Same goes for Tanisha Grandbois, co-chair of the Kenora Coalition to End Human Trafficking. She’s encouraged that the province is making resources available for women trying to escape trafficking. Yet in her role as executive director of Sunset Area Victims Services, she has yet to meet a victim whose experiences confirm the dock girl narrative.
Coalition member and OPP Staff Sgt. Jeff Duggan says he’s unaware of any local reports or police investigations in the past 14 years that have involved women or girls being trafficked on the lake.
Colette Surovy, who recently retired as executive director of Women’s Place Kenora, is the only social service worker interviewed for this story who had ever worked with a woman who fits the profile of a dock girl.
“I had one that was going out to rich people on Lake of the Woods. They’d come in from Winnipeg and that was the pickup centre, down at the docks. They were flown in sometimes. Sometimes they were driven in,” Surovy says. “It’s definitely real.”
TVO was unable to contact anyone who had been trafficked to cottagers on Lake of the Woods.
Hiding in plain sight?
Despite the lack of readily available proof that there’s human trafficking occurring at Lake of the Woods camps, some local social service workers are convinced it is a problem. The absence of evidence could be a consequence of the peripheral and underground nature of sex work.
The RCMP estimates two-thirds of Canada’s internal human trafficking occurs in Ontario. Most human trafficking goes unreported, and remains hidden. The data that does exist is based on criminal cases, and Richardson estimates that at less than one case in 50 gets to court.
Ontario’s strategy to enlist the public in spotting sex trafficking is designed to flush out cases and build knowledge of how it works in the region.
“This is the first time we’ve had dedicated boots on the ground in Ontario” to tackle the problem, Richardson says. “If we have no services for people who are being trafficked, what’s the outcome? Nothing changes. It’s not rocket science. If you don’t have the ability to have specialized police services, specialized awareness services, how do you change the problem? You can’t.”
Another path forward
Bridget Perrier, co-founder of a Toronto-based sex worker survivor organization called SexTrade101, says if the province is going to spend half a million dollars to root out sex-related human trafficking in the Kenora area, it could spend the money more effectively than chasing the elusive spectre of the “dock girl.”
In 2013, national media reported on research by University of Minnesota master’s student Christine Stark stating that Indigenous women were being trafficked on Lake Superior across the American border in Duluth, Minn. Perrier was the only one of the 105 women Stark interviewed who claimed to have been trafficked across the border. The RCMP’s subsequent investigation was unable to substantiate the claims.
Perrier feels that the province is undermining its own anti-trafficking efforts by concentrating resources in support centres — such as the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre — that are open only during business hours, which will struggle to reach those engaged in the nocturnal industry.
She would like to see programs focus on outreach to sex workers, who would be more likely to encounter trafficking victims than would other members of the community.
Meanwhile, equipping a vehicle with basic needs such as medical care for addictions, she suggests, could go a long way toward making sex work safer and providing an exit strategy for those who want one.
Perrier says more “resources are needed for the girls being dragged from Shoal Lake and Kenora into the cities.”
Perrier is working with Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (Shoal Lake 39), located 60 kilometres west of Kenora. The community’s Isobel Pinesse Health Centre enlisted her to lead its human trafficking community engagement process in late January.
Iskatewizaagegan is leading a public awareness project similar to Kenora’s, but it’s currently without program funding. The health centre’s program is asking the First Nation’s members to record the licence plates of cars involved in suspicious activities.
Health centre wellness worker Charlene Mandamin has never encountered a so-called “dock girl” but she does see Indigenous women engaged in the sex trade throughout the region’s resource and tourism industries. Mandamin says community members have noticed a trend of older, non-Indigenous men who are stopping on the reserve for gas and cigarettes, travelling with young, frequently intoxicated Indigenous women. She suspects those women are being transported through the Winnipeg-Thunder Bay circuit.
Mandamin believes that protecting susceptible girls in Shoal Lake from sex trafficking requires a bigger-picture approach, one focusing on the factors that put them at risk. “As the epidemic of drug abuse is on the rise, I think our women and our children are very vulnerable,” Mandamin says. “To me, a lot of these things start at home with traumatization and abandonment. Until we begin to address the root causes of why they are the way they are, there will be a lot of abuse in our communities.”
Her vision is to create a traditional retreat for Indigenous women and girls to recover from addiction and escape from coerced sex work. Providing that safe space could be part of solving the regional puzzle of encouraging women to escape exploitation, but the question remains, how to reach out to them?
“I know they’re definitely at risk with hunters, fishing, tourism. They have them at camps in mining situations. I know they’re definitely vulnerable. We have a lot of cottages on the lake,” she says.
But as for a “dock girl” scenario?
“I don’t know anybody that has been in that situation personally – yet.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.