Green light for city safehouse, red light for sex workers

City approves funding for transitional housing for victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, but may blur lines on who is a victim and who gets in


Timea Nagy came to Canada from Budapest in 1998 thinking she would work as a nanny, but she was kidnapped, told she had a debt to pay off and forced to work in strip clubs and massage parlours in Toronto. She was raped by three men on her first day on the job. Eventually, she taught herself English and escaped. She tried to pursue charges, but there were no human trafficking laws in this country until 2005.

Not only is she a victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation, but she is also a survival sex worker – someone who left sex work only to return out of necessity.

She says she had no other options. “You’ve already done it for months for someone else. And when you leave, you have no place to live, no clothing on your back and you need to survive,” she says.

Walk With Me, her trafficking-survivor-led organization, helps victims by providing 72 hours of emergency housing, cash, clothing and other assistance to help transition out of the life. Nagy says that whether or not people are forced into sex work, many return to it because there are no programs to help them with the transition.

Free Them, a group that works to end human trafficking – another organization Nagy works with – proposed in 2011 that the city create a safe house. After roundtable discussions and debates over what constitutes trafficking, with the logistical help of the city’s Affordable Housing Office, council allocated $850,000 to establish a transitional home for victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. It’s scheduled to open in 2015.

Councillor Paula Fletcher, who pushed council to approve the project, is happy to the see the idea come to fruition.

“It’s a huge success, especially under this administration,” she says, referring to Mayor Rob Ford, who typically votes against spending on social programs. The motion for the safe house passed unanimously while Ford was in rehab.

Fletcher says one of the biggest hurdles was reaching agreement with stakeholders in the community on a shared definition of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Anti-human-trafficking groups and sex worker support groups struggled to find common ground, but they eventually agreed that a person is trafficked if his or her identification is withheld by an abuser.

Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director with Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, knows how necessary transitional housing is, especially for marginalized groups like aboriginal women and girls, immigrants and the socially and financially disadvantaged. She worries, however, that the line between sex workers and people who are sexually trafficked may blur because of the definition the city will be working with to place women.

Even in a case where a person has chosen to enter sex work, if he or she is a survival sex worker “some organizations will say that person has been trafficked,” says Big Canoe. This precludes volition, thereby denying that a person can choose sex work as an occupation.

“There’s nothing in Canadian law in terms of protection for sex workers that recognizes it as legitimate labour,” she says, which problematizes the issue because some sex workers could be considered victims of trafficking.

Making all sex workers victims denies a person’s right to choose his or her occupation and does not address sexual exploitation.

The other problem is that the definition the city will be using to place potential victims is not the legal one used by police for trafficking. According to the Criminal Code Of Canada, human trafficking is forcing people to provide a service or labour by making them believe that their safety, or the safety of someone they know, would be threatened if they fail to provide, or offer to provide, the labour or service. In terms of sexual exploitation, those services include everything from lap dancing to the porn star experience – performing a sexual act without a condom.

Typically, identification is taken away from trafficked foreigners upon their arrival in Canada. But according to Diane Redsky, project director of the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s National Task Force on Human Trafficking, trafficking for sexual exploitation is more of a domestic problem than an international one.

“There is this myth about women coming from other countries. The majority of trafficking in Canada is of our own citizens,” says Redsky.

Domestic victims’ identification is typically not withheld. If only those without identification will be considered for admission to the safe house, where does that leave victims who may still have their I.D. but have been trafficked nonetheless?

The other issue: the house will only accommodate five or six women, and “that’s just a drop in the bucket,” Fletcher acknowledges.

Sean Gadon, director of the Affordable Housing Office, says the small scale of the project is appropriate for the kinds of transitional services it will offer, and he hopes to learn from it if there is a greater need for these services in Toronto.

“This is clearly the first outreach program for women who have been trafficked and exploited,” he says.

Currently, the number of people trafficked every year is difficult to determine because there is no national data collection system, and several agencies gather information in different ways.

According to the RCMP’s Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre, just over 300 people have been trafficked in the last 10 years (some for forced labour). But according to Inspector Cam Miller, that’s not necessarily accurate. Statistics Canada doesn’t record the number of victims, and even after consulting with 45 service providers, 260 organizations and over 160 survivors, the Canadian Women’s Foundation has no real numbers.

Nagy says her organization has helped more than 130 women and children in Ontario since 2010. But for at least some victims (who may have chosen sex work), that life is hard to leave.

“Even though I help them, that doesn’t mean they were all able to transition out of sex work completely,” she says. “It’s no different than an addiction.”

TRAFFICKING FACTS

2005 The year Canada enacted its anti-human trafficking law

16 Number of people charged with human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Canada this year

5 Cases that involved girls under 18

SAFE HOUSE FACTS

2015 When Toronto’s safe house doors will open

$850,000 Amount spent by the city on renovations

5 to 6 Number of women who will live in the house at any one time

2 years How long victims can stay

Human trafficking by the numbers

189 Number of human trafficking cases in Canada since 2004

71 Number of concluded court cases

300+ Alleged victims in those cases

Cases broken down by province

113 Ontario

50 Quebec

15 Alberta

6 BC

3 Nova Scotia

1 Manitoba

1 Nunavut

Source: RCMP

cynthiam@nowtoronto.com | @cynthiajmcqueen

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