Too little, too late

Media continues to ignore the victims of human trafficking

By William Loweryson 

Sarah Brody’s life began unravelling at the age of 17 in Montreal. Sarah (not her real name) was first approached through friends by a young and charming man. Flattered by his attention, his promises of money, groceries and drugs, Sarah began to feel as though her abject life was taking a turn for the better.  “I became totally dependent on him,” she says.

Just weeks after their first encounter, the man told her that he wanted payback for everything, and that she would have to work for him to do so. She submitted, fearful of his violent temper and threats. “What seemed like an easy way out, turned out to be the hardest years of my life,” she says.

 

Prostituting herself daily, she was at first confined to an apartment in Ville St. Laurent. She was eventually forced to move around Canada more than a dozen times; first to Toronto for the summer because she fetched a higher price, then back to Montreal for special events like the Grand Prix. “I was sent to Vancouver for three months and lived with four other girls and some random guy who handled us,” she remembers.

After nine years, Sarah, who turned 27 last month, was able to escape the horrors of the trade by contacting The Way Out, a group actively engaged in educating the public about human trafficking and providing assistance to victims. They offered her a place to stay and a support system to overcome years of abuse, addiction and crime. Once Sarah got help, she began to realize what had happened to her was a classic case of human trafficking. ” I never asked for what happened to me,” she says. “I was forced, I was fooled and I was threatened into it.”

Sarah’s story isn’t unusual for young women from impoverished backgrounds and with traumatic childhood experiences, whose lives are in the hands of ruthless bands of traffickers. In Montreal, Sarah says, the number of girls who are physically and psychologically imprisoned by traffickers is beyond imagination.

Yet, despite statistics that show the majority of human trafficking victims are Canadian, there is little evidence to prove the issue raise the issue. Apart from sporadic coverage, focused mostly on arrests of traffickers during big events; media outlets fail to present the real story — the destruction of these young women’s lives. Year after year, media coverage of these tragedies scratches but a small portion of the surface, focusing more on police activity and arrests rather than tackling the problem itself.

The profits of human trafficking in Canada. Photo courtesy Sault Online.

It begins with perception: to the average Canadian, the term “human trafficking” conjures images of foreign women being smuggled into the country. In reality, according to the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT), 90 per cent of human trafficking victims in Canada are Canadian.   

Montreal receives international attention every year during the Grand Prix, yet very little of that attention goes toward reporting the fact that, for three days every year, the city becomes an international hub for human trafficking. “There’s so much going on during the Grand Prix week-end, we can’t be everywhere at once,” says The Gazette’s crime reporter Paul Cherry. The media focuses its coverage, he admits, based on police interventions that lead to arrests.  

The media’s lack of sensitivity to the human aspect of this tragedy could very well be the reason for a systemic nationwide lack of coverage. A 2015 study released by the University of Maine studying 89 news articles discussing human trafficking concluded that journalists tend to slant their focus on government and law enforcement officials rather than towards the victims. According to the study, the criminal aspect of human trafficking is over reported while the economic and social conditions are under reported.  The resulting media coverage reinforces the narrative that human trafficking is a problem that can only be solved by perpetrator incarceration as opposed to long-term economic and social change.

Victims of human trafficking are often left to themselves. Photo courtesy The Toronto Star / dreamstime.com.

Heidi Yane, an activist currently working with The Way Out, agrees that public awareness is definitely lacking, especially during major events like the Grand Prix. “There’s really, very little conversation going on about human trafficking in Montreal; it really is an out of sight, out of mind kind of problem,” she says.

In response to this lack of attention, The Way Out organized two galas and several independent initiatives to help bring awareness about human trafficking to the Montreal community. “I guess we could say that people aren’t talking about it because our media isn’t starting the conversation,” Yane says. “So, it is up to organizations like The Way Out to start the conversation.”

Sarah considers herself lucky to have had enough courage to seek help. After contacting The Way Out, the organization offered her a temporary place to stay and the support system to overcome years of abuse, addiction and crime. Only once Sarah got help did she begin to fully realize what had happened to her was a classic case of human trafficking. “I never asked for what happened to me,” she says. “I was forced, I was fooled and I was threatened into it.”

In spite of the new anti-human-trafficking hotline the Canadian government announced last February, Yane believes that more needs to be done to support the growing number of victims. “The government will continue to have very little incentive to fight human trafficking when Canadians barely know it’s happening,” she says, while standing firm in her opinion. She says that if this issue is ever to get resolved, the media has to do more to share the stories of victims as well as the solutions that existor need to exist.

Despite all the support she has received, Sarah remains deeply traumatized by her experience. “I don’t know if I will ever fully heal from what I endured, but I hope I can at least move on,” she says.