As Christians prepare to welcome the athletes and spectators who will be coming to Vancouver and Whistler from across the globe to attend the 2010 Winter Olympics next February, there is one group of potential visitors they will be working just as hard to keep out: those who sell children and women for sex.
Major Brian Venables, the Salvation Army’s divisional secretary for public relations and development, said the prospect of a significant upsurge in prostitution was “an underbelly to Vancouver being on the world stage.”
He added: “The number of prostitutes doubles when the world comes to your community, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”
British Columbia already has a problem with sexual exploitation and human trafficking that the influx of upwards of one-million visitors will only exacerbate, said University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin.
“And we’re talking here about victims of both domestic sex trafficking – Canadians – as well as international victims.”
“Some of the networks or the routes that have been historically [used] to traffic narcotics or weapons are now the same distribution systems for the trafficking in human flesh,” said Jamie McIntosh, executive director of International Justice Mission Canada.
“And if it can happen globally, there’s no reason why the same thing cannot happen domestically.”
Traffickers “come on as being their friends … supplying them with what they need, whether it’s food, shelter, drugs, whatever. But they’re not their friends at all,” said Manitoba Conservative MP Joy Smith, herself a Christian. “They get them away from their support systems, their parents or their friends. Then they traffic them.”
By some estimates, there are between 1,500 and 2,000 prostitutes currently working in Vancouver. Some prostitutes and pimps are said to be as young as 13.
The lure of these international venues to traffickers, said McIntosh, is “the obscene levels of profit that are made off of the trafficking of persons.”
Human trafficking, he asserted, “is starting to compete for number two on the order of profits for organized criminal activity, globally. It’s drug-trafficking [first], then many estimates put human trafficking next – at somewhere in the neighbourhood of between $13.6 billion to $32 billion annually. That’s not pocket change.”
And despite the volume and extent of this illicit trade in human flesh, it remains a largely covert activity.
“Most of them,” said Venables, “are trafficked in hotels and private houses, and they’re accessed through the Internet or services that provide these things.”
“Victims have been advertised on Craig’s List,” Perrin added.
“Victims have been exploited in hotel chains that we all stay at. We’ve confirmed both of those findings through our research.”
Plans by Christians to confront the problem are taking the form of a two-pronged attack: reducing the supply of children and women who can fall prey to traffickers; and lessening the demand for sex with prostitutes.
On the supply side, the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC), an association of 290 leaders of Catholic religious congregations, has produced an educational kit for high school students called We are a Global Village – Human Trafficking and the 2010 Olympics.
It includes a dramatic presentation on DVD called The Oldest Oppression; a PowerPoint presentation; two 60-minute lessons; and a lesson plan designed for teachers.
“We wanted to get the high school students more aware of the issue. We believe that’s where the energy is in terms of advocacy and making change,” says Dave Bouchard, a CRC field worker in Red Deer, Alberta, who completed the project. “Also, this is the age group that a lot of the traffickers are targeting. And so with their awareness, then they are able to respond in kind and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to fall into that trap.'”
Although the presentation is geared toward teenagers, Bouchard insists that other groups can use it as well – and have already done so successfully. Nor is it just for Catholics.
“We’re doing an ecumenical approach,” he says, noting: “There are a couple of things in it that are Catholic in particular – two slides of the PowerPoint.” He tells non-Catholic presenters: “Just skip over those two slides, if they’re uncomfortable for you.”
For its part, the Salvation Army is preparing a brochure on human trafficking and training the people who will hand it out. It also plans to put up posters and bulletins in strategic places at the various Olympic venues; and it will train front-line workers on how to recognize victims of human trafficking, and what to do when they find them.
“In the fall of 2009,” says Venables, “we will start targeting the customers and the victims, and see if we can rescue some victims. We are currently doing that, but [this will be] a concentrated effort, [directed at] the ones who are just coming to town and realizing their predicament. … But we’re also going to boldly go after the consumer and suggest there are consequences to what they’re doing, as opposed to having a good time.”
He adds: “The girls aren’t on the street selling themselves. They’re out working, and not by choice. … [We’re saying] ‘She didn’t choose you, you chose her – and that’s rape.'”
Sex not a sport
Going aggressively after the consumers of sex will also be the focus of Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity (REED), a Vancouver -based Christian grassroots organization that stands against trafficking and sexual exploitation of women through outreach, advocacy and education. It is developing a campaign called Sex is Not a Sport.
“We’re going to have posters, postcards, t-shirts, buttons – whatever we can come up with the funding for – to spread the message,” says executive director Michelle Miller. “And anytime we give out information, we’re going to tell them: ‘If you’re going to take this, you have to commit to having at least one conversation about why you’re wearing this item and what this means.'”
It is a message Miller wants to take directly to the churches. “It’s time to show some outrage, and it’s time to stand with the least – and stand with Jesus, through standing with the least.
“And it’s time for truth-telling. Often the buyer is an invisible actor in the equation, but they’re actually driving the market for women’s bodies … We have to start addressing the demand side, or it’s never going away.”
Abetting Canada’s human trafficking problem are lax laws that are sometimes laxly enforced. One of the more egregious examples is the case of Michael Lennox Mark.
In November, a judge in Montreal sentenced Mark to only two years in jail after he pleaded guilty to trafficking a 17 year old girl. “But because he’d served one year in pre-trial custody and was given a two-for-one credit,” Perrin says, “he only had to serve an extra one week in jail after being convicted.”
MP Smith is determined that such outcomes do not happen again. In January, she introduced in Parliament private member’s bill C-268. It would impose a mandatory minimum five-year prison term on those found guilty of trafficking in persons under the age of 18. This, she asserted, “is the very least we can do.”
On February 27, C-268 received its first hour of debate. It was then slated to be voted on some weeks later.
The bill received support on one a popular online network. A page on Facebook stated: “This bill is an important step in combating human trafficking in Canada. With the Olympic games coming to Vancouver in 2010 … the timing of this bill [is] crucial.”
The bill was debated again April 22, and was passed. At press time, it was being studied by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
Smith said she has striven to get all political parties onside. “It’s not a partisan thing. It’s the right thing to do for these innocent victims. It’s the right message to give to people who are trying to traffic children. … And it also sends a message to traffickers for the Olympics in 2010.”
Perrin helped Smith draft her bill. He said that, while much more still needs to be done legislatively, C-268 is nonetheless “a very important step forward.”
The Supreme Court of Canada, he noted, “has said that mandatory minimum sentences in the Criminal Code, when they are constitutional, are required to be followed, and there are very limited exceptions. So the message that Parliament sends by passing C-268 would be to speak directly to sentencing judges and say,
‘We deem these crimes against children to be particularly heinous and justify at least a minimum sentence of five years.'”
Despite the threat trafficking poses, Venables remains hopeful. With Christians and people of good will working together, he believes the challenge can be met – and defeated.
“There is an opportunity for Vancouver to really win this,” he said. “We want to inform the visitors that, when they come to Vancouver, they better be here for the Olympics. Because if they’re here for illicit sex, we’re aware of it, and we’re just trying to protect these kids.”