Each year, hundreds of women and teens are sucked into Ontario’s human trafficking rings. An in-depth investigation into the Highway 401 loop and the hard, lonely fight to shut it down
It’s the afternoon on a Sunday in late October in 2012. Det. Const. Graham Hawkins’ is ready to work. He flicks on his computer and plants his tall, burly frame into the chair. His fingers hit the keys. As a member of Waterloo Regional Police’s criminal intelligence branch, Hawkins has spent the past two years investigating sex trafficking in Kitchener, Ont. By now, typing in the web address of his main source, a Craigslist-type site called kitchener.backpage.com, is second nature. Hawkins’ mouse clicks on “escorts.” There is a long list of women offering services for the night, and many new postings. A 19-year-old girl is listed as “new to the city.” A 21-year-old “exotic treat” is in Kitchener for her last day before moving on. There is a match for every fantasy: college girls, Japanese girls, small blondes. Most are in their early twenties, and a few are listed as 18 or 19, though in reality some are much younger.
Hawkins is part of a network of RCMP and provincial police officers fighting against sex-trafficking in the city. Day in and out, he looks for trafficking victims and their pimps. It’s a busy job. The region is a hotspot for Ontario’s sex trade. Wedged in between Toronto and Niagara Falls, Kitchener is a perfect pit stop for eager johns traveling to either nearby destination. Its location is well-suited for pimps, too: hotels dot Hwy. 8 near the city, ready-made rendezvous for pimps who shuffle unwilling women along a trafficking loop that connects Hwy. 401 with Queen Elizabeth Way. Every point is hit, so long as supply and demand calls for it, a human conveyer belt that stretches from the Greater Toronto Area, to Kitchener-Waterloo, to London, and then on to Windsor. Pimps also work along highway 403 going through London, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls.
Worldwide, the UN has estimated there are about 2.4 million people working as slaves. Human trafficking (which can include slave labour as well as sex labour) rakes in U.S. $32 billion each year. In Canada, media reports from late 2012 show the RCMP estimates between 600 and 800 traffickers operate here; non-government organizations say the number, realistically, is in the thousands. As for Kitchener-Waterloo, it’s even harder to tell. Few want to admit trafficking happens here and Hawkins says numbers are extremely difficult to track. After all, it’s not exactly like there’s a registry for sex slaves. He does, however, see about 30 to 50 postings on kitchener.backpage.com offering sex services daily, a number that gives some indication to how prevalent trafficking is in Kitchener—a hub for families and a city not unlike the rest across Canada.
Human trafficking can look a lot like prostitution. Sitting in his office in Cambridge, Ont. just outside of Kitchener Hawkins explains the differences. The first post he clicks on is for a blonde woman listed as early twenties, though she looks older. Her camera phone is visible in the photos, showing that she took them herself. For better or worse, this is classified as voluntary, not trafficking. He clicks on the next one. A tiny blonde girl in underwear appears on the screen in front of him. Her back is towards the camera as she leans against the wall of a hotel room. Her body looks teenaged, and she didn’t take these photos alone. He says he would call the young girl on the screen or visit her hotel.
Sadly, Hawkins says many women and girls who are exploited often slam doors in his face or become defensive. “They are living in a world of fear,” he adds. If they do agree to talk, he will try to get a statement and then refer them to victim help services, such as the Hamilton Ont.-based organization Walk With Me. (There are no such services in Kitchener’s region.) There is no standard work week. Along with his own sleuthing, tips from other police, hotels, and social groups come in daily. From there, it is the grind of investigation and due-diligence, whatever he can do to make an arrest.
The federal government defines human trafficking as forcing someone to provide labour or sexual services for the profit of the perpetrator. Prostitution on the other hand, is the consensual exchange of sex for money and is legal in Canada so long as the sex worker is not soliciting the public and is not being pimped out. Oftentimes, when girls walk the streets, human trafficking looks identical to prostitution. Hawkins describes prostitution as having two tracks: the high track, and the low track. The latter usually centres on addiction, where women exchange sex for drugs. Sometimes the price tag is as low as $20. Downtown Cambridge’s prostitution scene shows this track: a dirty mattress next to the Grand River gets a lot of attention and a building with a sign reading “Linda’s Gift Shop” is not a gift shop, but a place for those involved in the sex trade. This is not where trafficked victims linger.
The high track is where you will find the lost girls. It’s where women dress the part and advertisements label them “escort.” They work the hotels or street corners. In the high track, as Hawkins calls it, two girls might stand on a corner. One of the women entered prostitution on her own. The one who stands next to her, dressed nearly identically, works the streets servicing johns because if she doesn’t, she’ll be beaten. She works under a pimp who will threaten her or her family. To keep her there, he may have moved her to a different city, away from her support system. If he needs to, he will even destroy her government documentation. He will continue to move her every few days, both to lessen his chances of getting caught and to maximize clientele. Sex workers often have pimps, too, to whom they owe a cut of the money; a trafficked girl hands over almost everything.
Canada’s borders host warnings of fines and prison stays for trafficking; we are still a main source for child-sex tourism. Trafficking is a patient, sneaky crime. It exists when a plane of handpicked statuesque girls with false documentation make their way through customs, claim their luggage and then disappear. Eastern European countries are easy targets. Political instability there has led to poverty-stricken households, each member of the family desperate to save the others. They think they are on their way to a promised job maybe as a nanny or waitress or model—one that never existed. This is called transnational human trafficking. The RCMP, however, has found that the majority of sex slaves in the country are Canadian by birth—as of April 2012, 90 percent of convicted cases or cases before the courts were domestic.
Jasmine is from a middle class home in Sault Ste. Marie. She grew up with the influence of both the Christian and Catholic Churches. At 17, she travelled south to London, Ont. to study at the University of Western Ontario. The stress of mimicking the lifestyles of her well-off classmates became a burden. “I used my OSAP and all my loans for school for just clothes so I could keep up with my friends,” she says. “I just wanted to fit in.”
It was a demand she couldn’t meet. One day, in her first year of university, her biology partner convinced her to visit a nearby strip club on a study break. Inside, the server told her she could make hundreds nightly. The next day, Jasmine started as a server. She stayed there for a year, until an underage drinking penalty force the club to close. Another waitress suggested they strip at another club to keep their income. When Jasmine started serving, the idea of stripping disgusted her. After a while, though, that feeling dulled. Many of the strippers were working to put themselves through law school or make money while earning their PhDs. At 21, she felt that if she had an end goal like the other girls, it was okay. After a month at a club in Windsor, the good money acted as a lure to Toronto strip clubs. There she met the man who would become her trafficker.
They had a drink. He was charming. He told her that he was a pimp, but that he was the kind who rescued girls, got them a house, and got them on their feet. “I didn’t fully know what a pimp was because I come from northern Ontario, a small town,” she says. “It’s pretty sheltered and very clueless.” They started dating. He said all the right things, she says, mentioning marriage and kids. He even paid her rent at her Toronto condo and gave her a car to commute to school. She even started working at TD Waterhouse, a step toward quitting the strip clubs—or so she thought.
He started small. There were always other girls around, ones he had working in the strip clubs and doing extras: sex, blow jobs, and hand jobs. He kept telling her how much the girls were making, slipping it into conversation. He would say a girl made $3,500 the night before. Or, he would get a girl to tell her about making $10,000 in just one night; Jasmine made $1,000 from dancing. This subtle manipulation worked. Almost six months after meeting him, she was doing “extras” in the clubs. The first time was traumatizing. Afterwards, her pimp beat her, choked her, and called her a dirty whore. He forced her to have sex with him without a condom. “I was balling and screaming saying I never wanted to have sex ever again,” she says, “and he just kept touching me, and choking me and telling me to shut up. He opened my mouth and spat in it.”
She didn’t stop, though, and it got worse. Her pimp’s control tightened. He required her to put her money from the extras in a drawer. He would dictate how much she could spend, reminding her they were saving to buy a house. She told herself it was managing finances. There were other things, though. He wouldn’t let her look at another black man; she had to keep her eyes down. She had to say “yes” not “yeah” and get good grades. The house had to be spotless. She had to shower three times a day. Only white linens were allowed on the bed. He would also take her to family events and cook her wonderful Haitian food and teach her to dance. “Then all of a sudden the next day,” she says, “for no reason, he would just beat the shit out of me.”
He talked about having a child with her. By then, Jasmine had realized she needed to get away. She told him she didn’t want a baby. He told her it wasn’t her choice. She was his for life. He raped her. She became pregnant. Though she had tried to leave before—he had tracked her down and forced her to return—her unborn child galvanized her to escape for good. She turned to her youngest brother, who took out a restraining order against Jasmine’s pimp. During those 10 months, Jasmine started going back to church. She was afraid of what her pimp would do once the restraining order finished, but four months after it ended, Jasmine finally gave her statement to the police. In November 2011, her pimp began serving 19 months for assault, living off the avails of prostitution, causing bodily harm, and uttering death threats.
Jasmine’s time in the strip clubs doing extras for her pimp lasted three years. While she was not trafficked along the 401, Jasmine identifies as a trafficking victim—someone else profited while she was forced into sex work. She is also one of the few survivors of sex trafficking I found who would share her story, the abuse so similar to what is happening to girls and women along the loop. Jasmine would know. She now works as an activist for Sex Trade 101, an organization of women that raises awareness of the truths of the Canadian sex trade by giving public presentations. She is happily married and raising her two daughters. Soon she will go back to school in Toronto.
Traffickers don’t just seek out the girls who want designer clothes and money to pay tuition. They look for girls with troubled pasts, appearing like Santa on Christmas Eve, lugging around a sack with a gift that’s just right. Trish’s pimp found her when she was living in a group home. Trish was in Calgary, but similar homes exist in Kitchener-Waterloo—Lutherwood, Ray of Hope, the Pioneer homes—and, indeed, all over Canada. Trish’s grandfather had molested her from age eight. Her would-be trafficker preyed on all her weaknesses, doing and saying everything to make her feel good and safe. Two weeks before her thirteenth birthday, Trish lost her virginity to him. He bought her a short pleather skirt and a see-through top with a heart that barely covered her nipples. “Two days later,” she says, “I was working the streets.” Her pimp trafficked her between Calgary and Edmonton, hotel to hotel.
Trish was expected to bring in a minimum of $1,000 per night and was allowed to keep $20. Hawkins says pimps from the GTA can make $3,000 in a day from just one girl who averages $300 per trick. “I rebelled,” says Trish, “not realizing that when you rebel, the consequences are worse. The same curling iron that we would have to curl our hair with, he would wait until it was really hot and insert it into our vaginas. There were times when even after we screamed and screamed, he wouldn’t stop. There were times when your body was in so much shock you couldn’t even scream. Then he would send us back out to work.”
At 18, Trish finally escaped her pimp. Not knowing anything else, she joined an escort company. The men were even more violent than those on the streets. After being choked unconscious when she was 21, she left the business for good. Years afterward, she spotted her pimp in a Calgary mall, an experience that left her body frozen with fear. Now 29, Trish lives in Ontario, the mother of two boys. Her marriage of five years ended when her husband, after learning of her past, became abusive. She is now completing a degree at Brock University. Her intention is to help abused women.
Fairview Mall is a cluster of hotels—a Radisson, a Holiday Inn, a Howard Johnson, a Best Western, a couple no-names, and a Hampton Inn a few kilometres away. Kitchener is best known for filling hotels with business people and tourists coming to Oktoberfest or visiting students at Conestoga College, but housing cheerful visitors is not their only purpose. Within these innocuous hotels, the girls work. Hawkins says his department’s research and ongoing investigations show traffickers don’t favour any particular hotel chain. Any vacancy will do.
It’s December 2012 and I’m standing in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. Entwined trees sparkling green and blue, and someone has set up a tree fit for a catalogue Christmas inside, glowing a warm yellow. I enter and am immediately overcome with a chlorinated waft of air. The scent of a swimming pool used to excite me as a kid. I wonder if the signature hotel smell means something different to another girl my age. It’s midnight and there’s nobody here. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be one of those girls. Jasmine told me the very first night she was supposed to turn a trick, she couldn’t do it. She pretended she did, but was too nervous. Trish shaved her head to make herself less attractive so she wouldn’t have to do it anymore.
I step out of the elevator onto the fourth floor, walk down the hall, and stop at the window outside room 485 to look out at the view. There it is, the highway that Hawkins knows shuttles girls from this city to the next. I wonder who else has stood at this window. A john waiting to be serviced in 485? A girl waiting to be free? I wonder if the people at the front desk suspect anything when they book rooms. I wonder if the cleaning staff hear anything as they wheel their carts down the hallways, or if they know as they turn down the sheets. I wonder if there’s ever any evidence that gets tidied away when the room is made pristine for the next guest.
“We don’t see anything suspicious,” says Kitchener’s Hampton Inn manager Tom Stangl. “We are 90 percent corporate travellers from the U.S.” He suggests that his is not the type of hotel where it happens. Howard Johnson’s manager Kamal Patel says that once they know of this sort of activity, they check them out of the hotel. When asked how often this has happened or how they make sure they don’t come back, he doesn’t answer. Radisson Hotel refused to comment and Holiday Inn’s manager claims cluelessness about human trafficking. “No, I’m not familiar with it at all,” says Manager Naji Kotob. “Never has a policeman come in to talk about it.”
Hawkins says he is in touch with the hotel staff and managers daily. In fact, once when we speak, he says he is sitting in a hotel parking lot during a periodic check. “We are doing training with local hotels and managers and keeping them informed on what the crime trends are,” says Hawkins. But spotting the pimp or client in this real-life game of “where’s Waldo” is a little more complicated. “These people aren’t coming in with a neon sign,” he says, “They are coming in looking like you or I, booking a hotel room. So it’s really hard to tell.”
In Canada, trafficking across borders can earn a person life in prison, plus a $1-million fine. Human trafficking within our borders can be punished with a sentence of up to 14 years or life in prison. If the victim is a minor, there is a minimum mandatory sentence of five years. In Canadian courts, the all-encompassing charge “human trafficking” refers to the actual crime, benefitting from it, or destroying or withholding legal documents as a way to assist a trafficker. These trafficking-specific laws were introduced into the Criminal Code in 2005. As of April of last year, there had been 25 trafficking-specific convictions involving 41 victims and 56 ongoing prosecutions involving 85 accused and 136 victims (that have come forward).
“This isn’t a drug investigation or a gun investigation,” says Hawkins, “where I can take the evidence and put it in a locker for a year until we go to trial.” Part of the reason we don’t see more traffickers jailed, he explains, is because the courts rely on victims to testify, and some of the girls are just not ready for the emotional battle. The other problem is the clandestine nature of the crime. Criminals work behind closed doors and are constantly on the move. Traffickers are very discreet and for obvious reasons don’t welcome police presence. Last year, six offenders were convicted for trafficking-related offenses—sexual assault and living off the avails—but there were only three human trafficking-specific convictions.
That puny number motivates a group of nuns and laypeople in Waterdown, Ont., located just outside of Hamilton. Together they form The Waterdown Stop Human Trafficking Committee and have been travelling to schools and parishes in southwestern Ontario since 2004. “Human trafficking is such a hidden crime,” says one nun, Theresa Nagle. “We believe that increasing awareness and inviting action to change laws is the best thing for us to do.” Right now, they’re tackling the prickly subject of police officers’ misunderstanding of a trafficking victim’s situation. All of the members promote the Nordic Model—a system that punishes the johns, not the women involved.
“At this point in time, we are trying to change attitudes,” says Donna McKay, one of Waterdown’s lay members. “Many of the women that are involved in massage parlors or the sex trade really are victims, and I don’t think many police officers see them as victims.” After presentations in schools McKay says, people will admit that they had no idea criminals target the girls next door. They think it’s an international problem, she adds, but can’t believe it’s happening in places like Kitchener-Waterloo.
In December of last year, I sit in a bar in uptown Waterloo. The lights are slightly brighter than dim, and the walls are decorated with vintage beer posters. It’s 11 p.m. on a Thursday night in an area that is like a village for students of either Wilfred Laurier University or University of Waterloo, which are less than a kilometre apart. I think about what Hawkins told me about the predators.
“They are going to the university scene, the post-secondary scene, to the bars and things like that, looking for potential victims.”
It’s a slow night, but the group of students to my right seem happy with each other’s company. I have no way of knowing if someone like Jasmine’s trafficker ever visits this bar scanning the faces in the crowd for a girl to bring into the sex trade.
“Those guys are really smart, they are sneaky. They prey on people who are in a yucky part in their life. They are easy to manipulate, they are easy prey. I guess he saw that in me when he first laid his eyes on me.”
I see a girl I used to know, a model. She chugs back a beer before leaving for a cigarette with two guys she’s with. I think about what Jasmine said about meeting her trafficker after he begged her to have a drink.
“I sat down and had a red bull with him and he was just a smooth talker and he convinced me to start dating him.”
The guy with the guitar onstage to the side sings Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” occasionally cracking a joke to a crowd too busy to care. For all I know, here is where it starts.