It’s right under our noses

Friday of next week, Family Transition Place will hold their annual fundraiser, The Hope Project. This year’s speaker is someone whose story all should hear.

 

Timea Nagy, often called the face of human trafficking in Canada, has become one of the most important people on the front lines of this fight – a fight many don’t realize is even happening.

 

There is a deep, dark underbelly to our little corner of the world, one filled with the kinds of horrors so many of us believed exist only in other countries.

 

It’s easy to pretend it doesn’t happen here. We don’t see it, so it must not exist, right? Except it’s a rampant problem that continues to grow as traffickers find more ways ensnare young women, girls and young men.

 

Currently, human trafficking is the third most profitable crime in Canada. According to Daughter Project Canada, an initiative aimed at taking up the fight against the industry, girls are at risk now more than ever.

 

Although there are certainly women who are lured here under false pretenses from foreign countries, Peel Regional Police say at least 60 percent of trafficked victims in Canada are from the GTA.

 

The people responsible for this are getting smarter, learning who the easiest targets are, gaining their trust and misleading them.

 

It is estimated that 10,000 Canadians are trafficked domestically every year, and 90 percent of Aboriginal women end up in the sex trade, often through trafficking.

 

Sometimes the warning signs are there, but often, those being targeted are unable to recognize them. Those conducting trafficking are smarter than the girls they target – or at least, that’s how they act. For someone who doesn’t know any better, it can become difficult to question what you’re being told.

 

For a young woman who is afraid of standing up for herself, it can mean convincing yourself the warning bells in your head are just an overreaction. It can’t really be what’s happening, because this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in our own backyard, because you’re not pretty enough to catch the attention of traffickers. Because you need a job, and the shady things your boss says are probably meaningless.

 

Those are some of the things they tell themselves. At least, that’s what I told myself.

 

I’ll preface this by saying I’m lucky. Eventually, those warning bells became so loud that I had no choice but to listen. I got out before anything actually happened. But, when I did, I was so afraid to face the truth, I was so afraid no one would believe me, I locked it away and did my best to forget about it.

 

Everything started so innocently. As a freshman in college, I needed to find a job to help afford my schooling. I handed in a resumé at a fast food joint in the food court of a local mall, and the owner gave me an interview on the spot. He offered me the job within five minutes. Of course, I assumed it was because I was so impressive. I ignored those bells going off, just wondering why he never actually looked at my resumé or asked about my work history.

 

He asked about my age, asked if I was hoping to make a lot of money, if I intended to work through college. I said yes to all.

 

The first day of training I wore black pants and a plain coloured shirt, figuring I’d either be given a uniform or told the dress code upon arrival. When I got there, the owner looked me up and down for about five minutes before telling me my outfit was inappropriate.

 

“You need to wear tighter, fitted pants. Your shirt needs to be low cut. Boys won’t buy here from square girls.”

 

He took me to the Stitches store across from the food court and picked up examples of clothes he wanted me to wear. Then he told me if I couldn’t afford to buy a new wardrobe, he would buy one for me. I was confused, but never asked anything else.

 

Next, I was told I needed to wear more makeup. “Boys won’t buy from girls who don’t stand out.”

 

Then it was about my glasses. “Boys won’t buy from girls who look smart. I will buy you contact lenses. You will see my eye doctor.” Instead, I opted to just stop wearing my glasses.

 

During this time, I tried to get to know the two other girls working there. One was 15, the other 17. Both dressed in incredibly revealing outfits, all of which were hand-picked by the owner. When I asked about the owner’s requests, about their history there, both girls would get quiet and look afraid. They would mumble excuses about needing to do something else and leave. The 15-year-old told me one day she wasn’t allowed to talk to me anymore.

 

I was starting to get uneasy as things progressed, trying to find ways to ignore the awkward requests my new boss was making of me. After two weeks of training, I didn’t get a paycheque. When I inquired, I was told the company didn’t pay for training. Desperate to keep my job, I didn’t dispute it.

 

I worked another two weeks doing more training. The owner would stay until closing with me, often asking me what my plans were for the summer. He started pressuring me to stay and continue working over the summer, and I told him I couldn’t afford it and had a job lined up at home.

 

The pressuring turned more aggressive. He would rent an apartment for me. He wanted to get me bartending at his bars, so I could learn how to serve adult men. I assumed he simply meant that his bars drew in more male clientele. Still, I refused.

 

Then one night, he said I needed to stay for the summer, because he needed me to start working the hotels. I remember feeling I was going to vomit, but I played dumb. “Working the hotels?” I asked. “Yes, servicing in hotels.” He winked.

 

I quit the next day. I tried to contact the labour board, but was told I would need punch cards or the work calendar to prove I worked there. He had never filed paperwork showing I was employed.

 

I met with the 17-year-old and told her I needed her help, and in turn I would help her. The next time I saw her, she was pale and frightened. “He burned your resumé and the calendar. He said if I speak to you again, he’ll stop paying my family’s rent and report my father. I’m sorry.”

 

I never saw her again.

 

Of course, you can roll your eyes and think this was an overreaction. Perhaps I did just misunderstand. But regardless of whether you believe my situation, this is what is happening at our doorsteps.

 

Except it’s not just scummy bosses hoping to prey on girls. It’s young men who have bought into it, who are trained to work their ways into someone’s life, and slowly, ever so slowly, twist and manipulate them until they are ready to be taken. Sometimes, they’re not even trafficked outside of the area they live. There are stories after story of girls who were trafficked in their own neighbourhoods, who continued to live at home but were swept into the darkness outside.

 

Timea’s story, the stories of women and girls who are breaking free, and even my story, are not shared for pity. They are not shared because anyone wants to be a victim. Stories are shared because the more they are shared, the more people become aware. The more people have the opportunity to become educated, and the more we have a chance at saving just one life. And then another, and another. And maybe, one day, stopping this vile industry altogether.

 

These stories are why the Hope Project, and the work Family Transition Place does is so important. I encourage you to learn more – to search up one of the many organizations working to end trafficking in Canada and find out what you can do, and how you can help protect our youth from this horror.

 

This column originally appeared in the September 21, 2017 edition of the Orangeville Citizen.

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