N.S. sees highest rate of human trafficking in Canada, incidents tripled in 2019
Warning: This story contains disturbing details
Just a few years ago, Sasha was tied up and beaten for eight hours because her pimp suspected she had told someone what was happening to her.
"A lot of women like me," she said, "they don't want to tell because they don't feel safe."
Sasha (not her real name) recently escaped sexual exploitation and human trafficking that started in 2017. CBC News has agreed to protect her identity for safety reasons as her pimp is still at large.
Human trafficking numbers rose by 44 per cent across the country in 2019 from the year before. In Nova Scotia, they tripled —an increase of more than 400 per cent — accounting for almost one in 10 of all reported incidents in the country.
But those statistics may not paint an accurate picture, say law enforcement and advocates who believe the actual numbers are even higher because so many cases go unreported.
The new report from Statistics Canada released in May shows that in 2019, Halifax had the highest rate of police-reported human trafficking in the country. At more than 10 incidents per 100,000 people, it's 7.5 times higher than the national average rate.
Halifax also reported the second-highest number of incidents of all Canadian cities, second only to Toronto.
With a population of roughly 6.5 million people, Toronto recorded 40 cases of sex-related human trafficking offences. Halifax, with a population of fewer than half a million people, reported 30 cases of sex-related trafficking.
Miia Suokonautio, director of the YWCA in Halifax, has been working on issues of human trafficking in Nova Scotia for years.
"We actually partially expected an increase," she said in an interview.
Crime rate reporting isn't the best indicator of what's actually happening in a given community, Suokonautio said, because it tends to miss underreported crimes. She said survivors in human trafficking cases are particularly vulnerable, traumatized and stigmatized, which makes coming forward much more difficult.
"Our suspicion is that [the numbers] reflect increased reporting and increased awareness and increased support for victims," she said, adding that she thinks they're getting closer to what they know anecdotally are the true numbers.
Sasha's story, like so many others, began a few years ago with what she thought at first was a romantic relationship. But after a few months, things changed dramatically.
"The love and respect turned into guys coming over," she said in an interview.
There were parties with drugs and alcohol, and men paying to come to the parties and watch Sasha and her partner have sex. It quickly escalated into Sasha being prostituted and having no control over the money she was bringing in. Whenever she did not co-operate, Sasha said, she was beaten.
"I had my ribs broken, I had my eye socket broken, I had my nose broken a couple of times," she said. "My sternum fractured, my lips busted open. You name it."
Although she has since escaped that situation and will be acting as a peer-support person for other survivors through the Elizabeth Fry Society, she chose not to report the crimes committed against her.
In 2019, Canada launched a national plan to combat human trafficking that includes more support for survivors.
The YWCA recently launched TESS, the Trafficking and Exploitation Services System, which is made up of 184 people from over 80 different agencies across Nova Scotia, including direct service providers, schools, police, RCMP and child welfare. Its goal is to increase awareness of human trafficking in the province, and co-ordinate better support for survivors.
But there have also been improvements in other parts of the system, Suokonautio said, including a position specific to human trafficking within law enforcement and the justice system, a dedicated provincial investigations team, dedicated Crown prosecutor, dedicated provincial victims services, and navigators.
"All of which are moving us toward a system of improved detection and improved response," she said.
Cpl. David Lane is part of the Nova Scotia Human Trafficking Unit, a special law enforcement unit made up of specially trained RCMP and municipal police officers using a victim-centred approach specifically to deal with multi-jurisdictional human trafficking cases.
While he also attributes the increase in police-reported incidents to increased awareness and support for survivors, Lane believes human trafficking crimes in Nova Scotia are still significantly underreported.
Cases like Sasha's are not captured in the numbers because she didn't feel safe reporting. Furthermore, because traffickers are often master manipulators, many survivors don't even recognize themselves as victims.
"They think they might have had some choice or some responsibility, which is not the case," Lane said.
The statistics also don't tell us how many victims in one jurisdiction originate from another area. Nova Scotia, he said, is well known for exporting human trafficking victims to other parts of the country.
Geography could also be a factor in why Halifax has disproportionately high rates of human trafficking.
"They promise [victims] a better life in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal," he said in an interview.
Increased numbers show victims no longer afraid
Vanessa Tynes-Jass is now a lawyer in the Toronto area and CEO of an advocacy group for victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation called Survivor's Unleashed International.
But when she was 17, she was lured into a sex-trafficking ring in Halifax, and was trafficked across the country for over a year and a half, eventually escaping in Ottawa.
She's encouraged by the increase in numbers.
"It shows that people are not being afraid to report these days," she said in an interview.
Thirty years ago, when Tynes-Jass was being trafficked, she said victims were brainwashed by pimps to not trust the authorities. The risk of incriminating themselves and of being physically harmed for reporting was real and scary, and there was very little support to help them through the process.
"Maybe the climate has just changed for victims," Tynes-Jass said.
"They feel like they're going to be protected. And that's a huge change in this world."