For most people, the term “human trafficking” conjures up images of women spirited in container ships by organized crime, or distant lands where children are sold to sex tourists. It turns out the problem is a lot closer to home.
In 2006, a young Montreal woman that I’ll call Genevieve was thrilled to receive what she thought was the opportunity of a lifetime: a modelling job posing for the cover of an album produced by Urban Heat Music, an independent hip-hop record label headquartered in Montreal.
At the time, Genevieve had just ended a four year relationship with her boyfriend, had been injured in a motorcycle accident which left her unemployed, and had moved back in with her parents. After the photo-shoot for the album, Genevieve had drinks with the vice president of Urban Heat Music, Jacques Leonard-St. Vil (“Jackie”). Flattered by the attention, she spent the night with him, thus beginning their relationship.
Soon, Jackie convinced Genevieve that they could earn money hosting promotional parties in Toronto, so they went to Mississauga in January 2007. They needed capital to launch their new business, and Jackie told her she was to earn this money by working as an exotic dancer, and by offering sex acts at strip clubs.
When Genevieve refused, he threw an ashtray at her and slapped her, then told her she owed him eight hundred dollars. By February, Genevieve was being sold for sex at various clubs six days a week. Upon her escape, Jackie was arrested on multiple charges and eventually convicted of human trafficking. In just three months, he’d earned twenty thousand dollars from exploiting her.
Sex traffickers seek out vulnerable members of society: those who are in desperate straits financially, or are seeking love and affection. There are literally manuals that are shared among aspiring traffickers that describe in brutal detail how to target, recruit, control, and profit from the misery of their victims. .
Some or most provinces have created coordinating agencies and devoted funds to help trafficking victims. In Quebec, however, the cost of inaction has been paid by victims. In one shocking case, the lack of any provincial system to coordinate services for trafficking victims resulted in an eleven-year-old child being locked in Montreal’s Immigration Holding Centre for a month in the summer of 2008. The provincial child protection system was unprepared to deal with the case, meaning this child was re-victimized due to bureaucratic wrangling.
Prosecutors in Quebec have been reluctant to lay human trafficking charges under the Criminal Code, and have a poor record in securing adequate sentences. In November 2008, Michael Lennox Mark pleaded guilty to human trafficking in a Montreal courtroom. Mark had sold a seventeen-year-old local girl in street-level prostitution. He also pleaded guilty to three counts of procuring the girl and two other women. He received a sentence of two years imprisonment and two years probation. However, with two-for-one credit for his year of pre-trial custody, Mark served only a single week in prison after being convicted. Not exactly a strong message to other traffickers, or any comfort to the victim. There are, however, some courageous police officers and dedicated youth intervention workers in Quebec who are doing their best. But it will take more than their efforts to have a concerted response to this hidden tragedy. We need to ask tough questions about not only the traffickers but the men who pay to abuse their victims. And it’s time the provincial government stepped up and took the fight against human trafficking seriously.
Benjamin Perrin is author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking. At 6:30 p.m. on October 13, he is delivering a free public talk at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, 4100 Sherbrooke Street West (doors at 6:30 p.m.). Visit www.invisiblechains.ca for more information.