'It's going unreported': Program on Six Nations, Ont., out to open eyes on what human trafficking is
'It's scary for youth, not only on reserve, but everywhere,' says support worker
WARNING: This story contains details readers might find distressing
Robin Antone went through some hard years when he was younger.
Originally from Oneida Nation of the Thames, he grew up in nearby London, Ont., moving through various foster families and group homes. The instability of his youth led to drugs and drinking. He said the desperation caused by addiction made him vulnerable to becoming a victim of human trafficking.
Only he didn't realize that's what it was at the time.
"There were these guys that I used to come in contact with ... and they would ask me if I wanted to make some money," Antone, 49, told CBC Hamilton. "One day, I went to this guy's house with a friend of mine at the time, a so-called friend. He introduced me to this guy, got me drunk and… proposed some money to perform a sexual act."
Antone said the same "friend" put him in similar situations several times.
"It didn't dawn on me until later in my life that guy was actually trafficking me, because he benefited financially from introducing me to these different men."
Antone hid what was happening at the time because he was ashamed, but said being open about it now is part of his healing journey since 1996. He hopes it will inspire others to come forward for help.
Today, Antone works at Ganohkwasra Family Assault Support Services in Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont.
He said more public discussion around human trafficking in recent years has helped him realize he was a victim. He said putting a name to what happened has contributed to his recovery.
"It is empowering because, for me, it's a part of my healing journey — a missing piece of the puzzle."
New, culturally appropriate services
Helping community members better recognize what constitutes human trafficking is a major focus for Jami-Lee Baxter, supervisor of Ganohkwasra's child and youth programming.
Part of that work includes a program called Deyogwadawenye, which means "we are travelling together" in Cayuga. Her team is working hard on community education, trafficking prevention and developing supports for victims.
It's unclear how prevalent it is in the community because of the lack of awareness and tracking — something the Deyogwadawenye team hopes to change.
"A lot of times it gets reported as domestic violence and not human trafficking," said Baxter, whose team received a grant of $246,165 from the Ontario government last year, part of a provincewide anti-human trafficking strategy that includes increasing culturally appropriate services for Indigenous communities.
The team began its work in April 2021 and so far hasn't identified or counselled any victims, but is supporting a large roster of young people who may be at risk.
Baxter said providing education from an Indigenous perspective, as well as culturally relevant healing and therapy, make the program unique.
"[Indigenous peoples have] experienced human trafficking and sexual exploitation right from European contact," she said. "There was… forced labour in residential schools as well."
The Ontario government says human trafficking takes multiple forms, including "sex trafficking, labour trafficking and forced marriage… It can include recruiting, harbouring or controlling a person's movements using force, physical or psychological coercion or deception. Traffickers often make victims do labour (for example, domestic, physical and manual labour) or perform sexual acts in exchange for monetary gain."
In more remote Indigenous communities, or communities with a lack of affordable or accessible housing, human trafficking can involve requiring sexual acts in exchange for somewhere to stay or a ride somewhere, said Alex Martin, an anti-human trafficking youth worker with Deyogwadawenye. For Six Nations, he said, its proximity to major highways is also a risk factor as it allows easy access to people from outside the reserve.
The team believes a significant amount of such activity is going on in the community. In March, three men — one each from Six Nations, Port Dover and nearby Burford — were arrested after a human trafficking investigation, and charged with communicating for the purpose of obtaining sexual services and seeking sexual services.
Some unaware they're being trafficked
At the national level, Martin said, about 60 per cent of human trafficking victims are Indigenous, even though Indigenous people only make up 1.4 per cent of Canada's population.
"Some of these people who are victims or survivors may not know they're being trafficked themselves," he said, noting the group is preparing an education module for schools, considering the average age of a trafficking victim is 13. "Right now, it's going unreported … because we're not open to seeing what human trafficking is."
Some signs may include if a young person's new, older boyfriend or girlfriend is trying to isolate the individual from friends or family, or if someone is wearing new clothes or has other consumer goods they didn't buy themselves. It's also important to monitor young people's gaming accounts for users offering gifts over the platform, such as virtual currency to be used in the game, said Martin.
"It's scary for youth, not only on reserve, but everywhere."
Manoeuvring getting police help
Joan Henhawk, the program's other youth worker, said learning about human trafficking has helped her open the discussion with her own children and urge them to share the information with their friends.
"What really opened my eyes is the luring and grooming stage," she said. "They actually pretend to be your boyfriend or girlfriend… [The victim will] think, 'That's my boyfriend, they're just being nice to me,' but maybe they're after more."
Deyogwadawenye encourages community members to call through Ganohkwasra or contact police if they suspect an instance of trafficking.
Unfortunately, getting police help can be complicated in a grooming situation. Antone said he called them when he believed it was happening to someone in his life, but they weren't able to do anything because there was no proof of laws being broken.
"These recruiters come into our community and befriend teenagers, young girls — people in risky situations — and they lure them out of the community," he said, noting it underscores the importance of educating and supporting potential victims. "People are so in denial that it happens here in Ohsweken.
"If you have teenagers, it does apply to you. If you have internet at home, it does apply to you."
If you're experiencing what may be considered human or sex trafficking, there is help:
- Ganohkwasra Family Assault Support Services, Six Nations of the Grand River: 519-445-4324 ganohkwasra.com
- Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton (SACHA), Hamilton: 905.525.4162 I sacha.ca
- The Hamilton Anti-Trafficking Coalition: www.humantraffickinghamilton.ca/resources
- Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010 I www.canadianhumantraffickinghotline.ca
- Or contact your local police department