HUMAN TRAFFICKING:  It’s Hiding in Plain Sight

By Sean Sportun

When we hear the phrase human trafficking, most believe it is a distant problem in another country. That it will never touch us personally and that we will never observe this type of activity in the communities that we live.

Human trafficking, is not typically perceived to be a problem in Canada, however it has become an increasing concern across the country. If asked, the average Canadian would say they’re horrified that human trafficking exists – but are relieved that they live in a country where things like that don’t happen. After all, Canadians are widely known as being nice, right? This isn’t the kind of place where men and women entrap young teenagers, then move them from city to city, buying and selling them as modern-day sex slaves.

But, Canada is exactly that kind of place.

These misconceptions take over our level of awareness as we move about in our day-to-day travels. What we fail to realize is, one of the most heinous crimes imaginable is happening right here in our own backyard.

Our local media have reported shocking headlines like:

  • October 18, 2016, 32 people charged with 78 offences in Canada-wide human trafficking investigation
  • April 21, 2017 104 men were arrested “for purchasing prostituted children” in a child sex trafficking investigation that lasted four years
  • May 30, 2017 A 19-year-old Toronto woman is facing 10 human trafficking charges for allegedly coercing another woman into the sex trade
  • July 21, 2017 Arrests in human trafficking investigation, man, 26, facing 13 charges and girl, 17, facing eight charges, Police are concerned there may be other victims
  • October 17, 2019 More than 30 arrested in multi-province human trafficking investigation

and most recently

  • March 2, 2020 Brothers face human trafficking charges after arrests in Ontario

The reality is, human trafficking is a growing industry and has evolved to be a multi-billion-dollar business, making it the second most lucrative crime in the world, second only to drug trafficking. What’s more concerning is, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, 93 per cent of sex trafficking victims within Canada come from Canada. The average age at which exploitation begins is 13; the average age of rescue, if a girl is rescued at all, is 17.

These are young Canadian girls of all socio-economic backgrounds, from big and small cities, that are being recruited and forced into sex work.

Given the media reports and statistics, it is surprising there hasn’t been a massive public outcry yet. However, this is the kind of problem we’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist, although that’s getting harder to do.

What is human trafficking?

Public Safety Canada defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/ or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour.

It is often described as the modern-day form of slavery.

Individuals and/or organized criminal networks carry out this type of crime, operating within Canada’s borders and around the world. These traffickers reap large profits while robbing victims of their freedom, dignity and human potential.

Simply put, this is a crime against humanity and as an industry, action needs to be taken.

The Gas-Convenience Store Industry’s Role

Traffickers and their victims move around in plain sight just like the rest of us and just like anyone else, they visit our gas-convenience stores daily.

When transporting victims from one place to another, the trafficker’s goal is to remain undetected, so they do not bring attention to themselves or their situation.

As a result, these individuals will commonly end up visiting our truck-stops, travels centers, gas stations and convenience stores to fuel up on food, gasoline and use the bathroom. Think about it, this makes perfect sense. We are largely a 24-hour convenience operation with quick access to purchase what you need when traveling.

Canadian convenience stores, with our network of almost 8,000 locations – along with the nearly 12,000 gas stations across the country, are a valuable partner in the fight against human trafficking.

As an industry, we serve more than half the Canadian population each day – which puts our employees in a unique position to disrupt this this criminal enterprise and increase the likelihood that our employees can help victims of human trafficking through awareness campaigns and education. This will no-doubt make it uncomfortable for the traffickers.

Here is what you can do:

  • Implementing a training program is a first step. To be effective, employees need to know three things: what they’re looking for, what to do if they see something suspicious, and what to avoid doing
  • Have a reporting mechanism for employees to use
  • Partner with organizations, such as Crime Stoppers
  • Promote awareness campaigns to amplify the message (ie. signage in bathrooms, SafePlace program)
  • Maintain a safe haven for community members who need help

Circle K Stores – Central Canada

Recognizing the critical importance partnerships play in the prevention of crime and the accumulative positive impact such collaborative actions can have on protecting the vital interests of a community, Circle K Stores Loss Prevention team in Central Canada maintain a commitment to community safety with a focus on crime prevention.

Understanding their reach into the community, they have introduced a unique philosophy of Crime Prevention Through Community Engagement that continues to prove successful; which has also been the focus of two Harvard Business Reviews.

In 2017, they introduced an employee training component to educate staff on the signs of human trafficking and how to report it through their in-house security hotline.

Through their existing partnership with Toronto Crime Stoppers, Circle K utilized their network of store locations across Ontario to amplify human trafficking awareness campaigns.

In 2017, they partnered with Peel Regional Police to become the first retailer to implement the SafePlace Program in all their Region of Peel locations. The initiative encourages valued members of the community who are victims of crime who are in need of police assistance to report incidents at businesses displaying the Safe Place decal. This program has since expanded to the City of Sault Ste Marie with that local police service.

Know the Signs

Gas-convenience employees know their customers and know what is going on in the community their store resides. Every day, these employees engage in conversations and observe their customers behaviour and, if educated on the signs of human trafficking, they will not only be able to identify strange or suspicious things, but they will know how to report their findings.

Indicators that can point to sex trafficking include:

  • Young girls wearing excessive makeup or clothing inappropriate for their age
  • Young girls in possession of expensive clothing, phones, and jewelry with no reasonable means to afford them
  • Large age gap between male and female with no explanation for relationship
  • Young girls who are underweight and appear malnourished
  • Girls whose companion does all the talking for them
  • High-end vehicles driven by a young male and occupied by young females

Community Partnerships – Crime Stoppers

Toronto Crime Stoppers has taken an aggressive approach on bringing awareness to this crime. Through powerful public service ad campaigns, they have created a presence in travel-related platforms and disrupted the experience to get people’s attention, so as to educate them to identify and report suspicious behavior specific to human trafficking. In 2017, the not-for-profit organization launched their first campaign titled Human Trafficking Often Hides In Plain Sight.

The campaign creative discreetly places the scenes and signs of human trafficking within the patterns of hotel room fabrics, including the wallpaper, bedding and drapes. The initial campaign was quickly followed by second campaign in 2018 titled Speak Out For Those Who Can’t. This campaign creative displayed arresting photos of young women gagged with airline baggage tags, and drove users to StopTheTraffic.ca to learn the signs of human trafficking.

Both campaigns included out-of-home placements across the GTA including, transit shelter ads, elevator advertising, TTC digital screens, advertising across Circle K Stores network of locations, and carousel ads on Facebook and Instagram targeting people with travel interests.

These awareness campaigns are aimed to create discussion, educate the average citizen on the signs of human trafficking, let the traffickers know the community is taking action and lastly, to provide the community and/or victims with a conduit to relay anonymous information about this type of crime to the police by calling Crime Stoppers.

We need to come together if we are going to stop human trafficking. Community safety is a shared responsibility, working collaboratively as a community we will continue to make a difference in combating human trafficking.

See it. Say it. Stop it.