By Emily Pelley
The history of global slavery is often a topic that is presented as a past wrong that belongs to less educated people and a shameful time in our history. However, it has become more evident over recent years that the eradication of slavery did not actually happen because slavery still exists in numbers that surpass those of the transatlantic slave trade. What is interesting today is to see how the roles of different countries have changed in this story of global slavery. Canada, for example, used to be a place of freedom for slaves during the mid-nineteenth century. It is estimated that over 30,000 slaves travelled secret paths, known as the Underground Railroad, from the United States into Canada. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. even referred to Canada as the “North Star” in their historical struggle for freedom. Now, 150 years later, Canada is no longer a safe haven from exploitation but rather a destination for human trafficking1. Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as follows:
“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. (UNODC)2
The illicit nature of slavery and human trafficking prevents any official count on the number of victims, though estimates range from 10-30 million globally. In Canada, the estimates of victims are in the thousands, with 90 percent of victims being domestic. That means Canadian citizens are being exploited in their home country, often in their hometown. The most common form of trafficking here in Canada is in the sex trade. And we know that young people are often the targets of this exploitation. This is a highly lucrative industry, making it all the more dangerous. For example, one of the first convicted traffickers in Canada was trafficking one girl from the age of 15 to 17½. In that 2½ year time, he made $360,000 trafficking and exploiting her. So, that’s a six-figure income he was pulling in, and that was only one girl. Unfortunately, there is currently no minimum sentence for human trafficking in Canada.
The RCMP places the average age of recruitment at 14. Many trafficking victims fall prey because they seek a better life or enhanced economic opportunities. Young people in search of purpose, love, acceptance—traffickers target these vulnerabilities.
Now, it is easy to become burdened and paralyzed by the enormity of this injustice. But I want you all to remember that we are not called upon to solve this problem on our own. Quite the contrary, we have access to a loving, problem-solving, soul-saving God who has commissioned us, as his followers, to stand up to injustice and be a voice for the voiceless. So, what does it look like to join the fight against human trafficking here at home?
Prevention must be our goal. How do we stop young people from being tricked into this life? Often, policies and responses to human trafficking are over-simplified and superficial, frequently missing the root issues that enable human trafficking to exist. We need to understand what makes people vulnerable to being trafficked in order to prevent their exploitation. And we need to make people aware of this injustice.
This is not really about fighting some big, ominous enemy, where we stand dumbfounded at the task. This is about looking around us and asking what is in front of us that we can do. What makes people in my city, in my region, vulnerable to being trafficked? When we combat vulnerability, we are attacking the very roots of human trafficking. Let’s take seriously the call to defend our communities, to take ownership. Let’s make the effort to know our neighbours, to know the issues that are being faced, and to know the people and places most at risk.
Human trafficking is not a “far-away” problem, but a crime taking place in our own nation. There is so much more for us to do and not enough time to sit passively while people are being exploited because a statistic is just a number until that number becomes a face. Use your voice. Use your hands. Use whatever is in front of you because God put it there for a reason. I have spent the last few years advocating and raising awareness about human trafficking here in Canada. In 2015, I had the opportunity to give a Ted Talk at Dalhousie University on the subject, and I am honoured whenever I am offered a platform for this message. My hope is that you will also use whatever is at your disposal to make a difference.
Emily Pelley (nee. Zinck) is a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary program at Dalhousie University, doing research on Canada’s response to refugee children and youth affected by armed conflict. She is also a researcher with the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier’s Initiative, located at Dalhousie. Emily is a passionate advocate against human trafficking. She was born and raised in Halifax where she lives with her husband and daughter.
1 Perrin, B. (2010). Invisible Chains. Penguin Canada.
2 UNODC- Definition of Trafficking in Persons. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from <ahref://https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html> https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html