Toronto police put focus on Indigenous women and girls targeted by human traffickers

Toronto police have opened a first-of-its-kind conference with a focus on helping Indigenous women and girls from falling victim to human trafficking.

Indigenous women are often targeted for sex work or drug smuggling, experts say

A red dress, symbolizing missing and murdered Indigenous women, on stage after the conference's opening ceremony. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Toronto police have opened a first-of-its-kind conference with a focus on helping Indigenous women and girls from falling victim to human trafficking.

The two-day event, which opened Wednesday, features speakers and survivors of human trafficking with the goal of creating more awareness and educating frontline police officers about the issues facing Indigenous community members.

"I want police to understand what is important to families, what they need from police officers, and I want them to know that it is a very delicate relationship," said Meggie Cywink, a speaker whose sister was murdered in 1994.

Cywink said her community's fraught relationship with police is in need of major repair, but she lauded police for hosting the conference to address the issue head on.

"Police are really making an effort to want to change behaviour. I think they realize that it is a systemic issue," she said.

"Sometimes the bridge has to break in order to rebuild the bridge."

Meggie Cywink, whose sister was killed in 1994, said police are making more effort to improve their behaviour and relationships with Indigenous communities. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Indigenous women uniquely vulnerable

Experts and survivors say Indigenous women and girls face unique challenges when it comes to human trafficking.

The women are often targeted in cities, where they are isolated from their home communities, explained Collin Graham, a community development manager for the Ontario Native Women's Association.

"There's a lot of vulnerabilities given the status of how Indigenous youth are growing up with a lack of resources that mainstream Canadians have," he said.

Once they are lured into the trade, the women and girls can end up being used as sex workers or drug mules, Graham said. The women are targeted by traffickers in public spaces like homeless shelters and malls, and increasingly on social media, experts say.

"Each of us, regardless of who we are, what we do for a living, have an inherent role and responsibility as a community member to look out for each other," he said.

Will police improve? 'Time will tell'

Const. Randall Arsenault, a Toronto police Aboriginal Liaison Officer in Scarborough, said the conference opened his eyes to the issues facing Indigenous women and girls like nothing else he's experienced before.

Arsenault, who has roots in the Mi'kmaq nation in Atlantic Canada, said a demonstration about the legacy of residential schools was especially powerful.

Const. Randall Arsenault, 43 Division's Aboriginal Liaison Officer, was among the police officers in attendance. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Participants were guided through an exercise where they were physically removed from their groups.

"I've been to a lot of different events where they talk about residential schools ... but the activities that we did today that was probably the most effective I've been a part of in my whole career," Arsenault said.

Whether the conference leads to real changes in police behaviour is yet to be seen, but participants said the conference could be a powerful first step.

Asked if the conference could lead to real change, Cywink said she is hopeful.

"In my heart, I want to believe that, and time will tell," she said, adding that if police follow through on the changes that are needed, Indigenous communities will also have to change their attitudes towards police.

"It's a two-way street," she said.