Indigenous

Human trafficking survivor says Indigenous women and girls especially at risk

Bridget Perrier was recruited into the sex trade out of a group home in Thunder Bay at age 12. She says more attention needs to be paid to the issue of human trafficking and its connection to missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Now an anti-sex trafficking lobbyist, Bridget Perrier shares her story

Bridget Perrier, 43, is a survivor of human trafficking and an advocate for other survivors. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

At the age of five weeks, a baby born in Thunder Bay to an Anishinaabe woman from Northern Ontario was adopted by a non-Indigenous family. It was 1976.

Thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed into non-Indigenous homes from the 1950s to the 1980s, known as the Sixties Scoop.

Bridget Perrier says she had a good childhood until she was molested by a family friend at age eight. She began acting out and was relinquished by her adoptive parents to the Children's aid society when she was 11. She was placed in a group home, from which she would be lured into a path of sexual exploitation and violence for a decade. 

Perrier, now 43, lives in Toronto with her children and grandchild. She is an anti-sex trade advocate calling for more support for survivors of human trafficking. 

"I knew that there was more for me and I knew I wanted to help people," she says. 

Human trafficking is a largely hidden but pervasive issue in Canada and Indigenous women and girls are affected at disproportionate levels.

According to a 2016 Statistics Canada report based on police reported data, 72 per cent of human trafficking victims between 2009 and 2016 were under the age of 25. Two-thirds of the more than 1,000 offences recorded in that time period were reported in Ontario.

'I knew that there was more for me and I knew I wanted to help people,' says Bridget Perrier. (Submitted by Bridget Perrier)

In a 2014 report by the Canadian Women's Foundation, service agencies estimated that of the trafficked or sexually exploited women and girls they served, 51 per cent of trafficked girls were or had been involved with the child welfare system and 50 per cent of trafficked girls and 51 per cent of trafficked women were Indigenous.

A report by prepared by the Ontario Native Women's Association in 2016 lists a history of sexual exploitation, poverty, lack of awareness or acknowledgement of sexual exploitation and a legacy of colonization as trafficking risk factors. 

Lured and recruited

One evening when she was 12, some of the older girls in the group home told Perrier they were going to go make some money. 

"I asked how, and they told me to 'just laugh.'"

The girls sat around an old man and "manually stimulated" him.

"The more you laughed, the more $100 bills were left under the Kleenex box," she said.

"For a little girl, that's a lot of money."

When she was five weeks old, Bridget Perrier was adopted into a non-Indigenous family. She is at the top right, wearing glasses. (Submitted by Bridget Perrier)

She ended up running away from the group home with the older girls and says that no one really looked for her. Sometimes the police would bring her back but she says that she would just run away again as soon as the car was out of the driveway. 

This was her introduction to the sexual exploitation and violence that would encase her life for the next decade.

At 12, she was recruited by a woman who ran a brothel in Thunder Bay. She said the woman spotted that Perrier was a young Indigenous girl who was caught in the child welfare system and had already been abused. She said she bought Perrier nice things and played on her insecurities.

"She never forced me to stay," says Perrier.

Perrier said the madame used manipulation more than force so she would stay, saying that she was the only one who understood her and if she went back to her parents they would just send her away again. 

While there were countless horrific experiences, she says that the worst time was when she was 14 in Thunder Bay and was held captive for 43 hours and was raped and tortured repeatedly.

At the time, Perrier was still at the madam's agency but she wasn't getting enough calls so she was going out to make some money.

"He was going to kill me," she said.

"He had these big snip things for my bones, he told me."

She was able to escape and required medical attention and internal stitches. The man was caught and served two years in a federal penitentiary, which Perrier says seems like nothing for what he did to her. 

He was going to kill me- Bridget Perrier

The madam Perrier was being exploited by owned two brothels, the one in Thunder Bay and one in Halifax, and Perrier would travel between them. 

"She had said to me, 'watch out because there's pimps in this town' and then I met him." 

Move to Toronto

Her second exploiter was a pimp she met at the Toronto airport. 

In a similar fashion to the madam, the pimp groomed Perrier, sometimes acting like a boyfriend. When they met, she told him she was going to Halifax, which is where he said he was from. They met up again there and when he asked Perrier to come to Toronto, she did. 

The pimp would have Perrier stand on street corners and move her around from hotel to hotel. She stayed under a threat of violence. She says he would beat her and hit her with a scalding metal coat hanger if she wasn't obedient. 

Perrier shows off some of her tattoos. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

She eventually called her adoptive mom to come get her and escaped the pimp, but later became involved with an organized crime syndicate after meeting a member in Oshawa.

She had a son when she was 16 who developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia at nine months. He died when he was five. 

"I was so encased in prostitution that I didn't even regard that servicing men would put him in jeopardy for a bevy of childhood illnesses," said Perrier. 

After his death, "I knew I was done," she said.

"My son had died and I just couldn't give it anymore."

In 1999, Perrier was pregnant again. Her daughter was delivered in Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Bridget then entered transitional housing at Nekenaan Second Stage Housing.

She worked to stay out of the sex-trade, getting her high school diploma then going to George Brown College to study social work. She co-founded the anti-sex trafficking lobbying group Sex Trade 101. 

Connection to MMIWG 

Addressing the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women and girls needs to be seen as a national priority, she says, as well as the connection between sexual exploitation and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

In the decade that she was exploited, Perrier says she was careful not to say she was an Indigenous woman because she says they experience the most violence and heinous acts in the sex trade. 

Part of the final report of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, released June 3, takes a "deeper dive" looking at the sex industry, sexual exploitation and human trafficking, informed by testimonies of survivors who experienced physical and sexual violence while engaged in sex work. 

Five of the report's calls for justice relate to sex trafficking. They call for support for sex-trafficking victims through trauma and addiction treatment programs being paired with mental health, sexual exploitation and trafficking services; call for support for Indigenous-led prevention initiatives related to sex-trafficking and barrier-free exiting; and call for mandatory training for transportation services, hospitality services, social workers and those implicated in child welfare to recognize signs of sexual exploitation. 

Bridget Perrier and her cousin. (Submitted by Bridget Perrier)

Perrier says she is tired of empty promises and wants to see non-Indigenous men charged with committing a hate crime if they murder an Indigenous woman. 

"It's not the streets that kill our women; it's not the laws that kill our women. It's the men that are killing our women," she says. 

She said she also thinks police forces need to be held accountable for the poor policing that Indigenous people have been subject to and there need to be anti-poverty strategies to protect Indigenous women and girls. 

The MMIWG inquiry's final report also found that police services struggle to respond to cases of human trafficking and that current laws are not effective in protecting Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

Perrier says she always had a love-hate relationship with the police where generally they were "horrible" with her, but there were certain police that she crossed paths with who she knew and respected. But overwhelmingly, she says, they never did anything to help her. 

According to ONWA, 95 per cent of women involved in sex work said that they are involved in prostitution involuntarily. The Criminal Code also says that children and youth under the age of 14 can't legally give informed consent to sexual activity. 

"I think there has to be a real understanding that [for] victims of human trafficking, it's not a choice," says Suzanne Smoke, who works in community outreach and engagement/anti-human trafficking for Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services. 

But Perrier says that Indigenous women should be seen as survivors, not victims. 

"They think we're broken, but we're not," she says.

"I have a good resilience, I just have a lot of fractures."

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.