Human trafficking is 21st century slavery.
It can start out as innocently as a party invitation. Drugs get passed around, the spoils of what money can buy are shared, and before the unsuspecting victim knows what's happening, a gang has its clutches on a new recruit.
Or it could cross borders as a new immigrant arriving to the promise of a job, only to find herself trapped as a house slave, her identification documents seized by her live-in employer.
It's an all-too-real scenario creeping into B.C. cities and towns, in workplaces, in neighbourhood homes, on the streets and in our schools.
This Saturday at Nasdeh Yoh elementary school, a gathering of about 50 teachers of aboriginal programs from various parts of northern B.C. will attend the B.C. Teachers Federation human trafficking conference to learn what they can do to attack the problem.
"This issue brings with it a feeling of hopelessness or powerlessness when you see a gang potentially moving to a community and you see youth leaving the classroom," said Melissa Hyland, a Surrey-based consultant on aboriginal youth and sex trafficking.
"A lot of these educators are coming from very remote communities and they might think, 'What can I do, I've called the local police and they might only be here once a week.' But we have a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline [1-888-712-7974] through [RCMP] victim services. All victim service workers have been trained on the issue of human trafficking, so our hope is we can better equip the people out there who are keeping our kids safe for six or eight hours a day in a classroom."
The United Nations defines human trafficking as "an act of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."
Exploitation can take on several forms, including prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery, servitude or even the removal of organs without consent.
"Because of the Internet, because of the luring and the grooming, online predators have become incredibly sophisticated," said Hyland. "When you can buy a youth for $500 a day, its tax-free, it's cash, and it's a renewable resource because when you're done using them 30 times a day in a brothel or bawdy house or strip club you just get rid of them. You may be running several houses with 13 or 20 youth and you become wealthy very quickly, and there are lots of overlaps into gang activity and drug trafficking."
Until her position with the province's Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons (OCTIP) was eliminated in December, Hyland worked as the organization's program analyst and helped develop curriculum for educational programs. While human trafficking affects all of society, Hyland said the aboriginal community has been singled out for Saturday's conference because it aligns with her area of expertise in indigenous social work and nursing. She's of Metis/Cree descent and her own sister was trafficked as a teen prostitute on the streets Downtown East Side in Vancouver.
"Because the aboriginal community is still reeling from the impacts of residential schools, the youth population can be vulnerable," said Hyland. "They come from isolated communities, there's a lot of poverty, and when you have someone online promising to take you shopping, take you out and buy whatever you want. They don't realize until it's too late there's a price to pay, and then they don't know how to get out of it.
"This will give teachers the knowledge and skills that there are new criminal codes to work with and who to call and what to do. It's better to put our money into prevention than rehabilitation."
New laws applied to the Criminal Code of Canada in 2005 spelled out what defines human trafficking. The revisions made it illegal for anyone to benefit from the practice and made it a crime to withhold or destroy a person's travel or identification documents to enable trafficking of that person.
While police are doing what they can to bring traffickers to justice, RCMP Cpl. Angela Kermer, co-ordinator of B.C.'s aboriginal gang awareness program, says it's up to the public to learn more about that type of illegal activity and not be afraid to share information with police. She says a united neighbourhood front is key to pushing out the perpetrators.
"People need to know that they will stay safe themselves if they tell the police," said Kermer.
"They can even be awarded for their information and still stay anonymous. People are scared to take a stand because they don't know what will happen to them. If you act as one, as a community, you can overcome any of the fears these people are giving you. If people make it a priority it will be more unacceptable."
While sexual trafficking and gang exploitation get most of the public attention, Kermer says victims of forced labour continue to fly under the radar. A woman in West Vancouver, Mumtaz Ladha, promised a 21-year-old woman from Africa a job in a hair salon and ended up taking away the women's passport and forcing her to work in her home for 18 hours per day every day for a year, until she finally sought refuge in a women's shelter. In August, Ladha was charged in with one count of human smuggling.
Aboriginal teacher Christine Stewart, a member of the BCTF executive, will also speak at the conference, which will end with a traditional ceremony to call back the spirits who have gone missing as a result of human trafficking.
Human trafficking will be the focus of a larger-scale Prince George conference on March 25-26 at the Civic Centre for all service providers, including the RCMP, nurses, social workers, and youth probation officers.