Don Meikle, executive director of EGADZ, a youth outreach centre in downtown Saskatoon, says housing is important for human trafficking victims. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

‘Somewhere to go:’ Sex trafficking victim calls for more safe houses

REGINA — For years, Beatrice Wallace blamed herself.

Not only did she feel shame and guilt, but the 46-year-old Regina mother kept it hidden.

Her “dirty little secret,” as she calls it, was working the streets — first forced there by men when she was 14.

“I had seen girls on the streets and … they were hookers. That’s what we called them then,” Wallace says.

“When it happened to me, I was a hooker. And a hooker was dirty.”

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation are getting renewed attention in Canada following the release of the final report from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

It calls for an effective response to deal with human trafficking and details how Indigenous women are targets, often coming from vulnerable situations such as growing up in foster care.

That was the case for Wallace, who is Indigenous and the daughter of a residential school survivor. Adopted into a middle-class home when she was four, she says there was abuse.

“From a young age, I just assumed it was OK for men to be abusive.”

She was kicked out at 13 and moved to girls home in Regina’s north- central neighbourhood, but often ran away. At the first place she fled to, she injected drugs and was sexually abused.

“That started my journey of just going downhill,” she says.

She suggests more safe houses are needed where victims can go to escape.

“There were many times when I wish I had somewhere to go.”

Don Meikle, executive director of EGADZ, a youth outreach centre in downtown Saskatoon, says housing is important, but any solution can’t stop there. Those being sexually exploited need help dealing with other trauma as well as with possible addictions and mental- health issues.

“People need to have hope. They need to be able to contribute to themselves, their family, their community,” he says.

The inquiry report noted that Saskatoon is part of two human-trafficking circles in which victims are moved between Manitoba and Alberta. Oil and gas development with a mainly male, transient workforce contributes to trafficking patterns.

“We’ve housed young women from Montreal who have been brought to Saskatchewan to work and (who) want out,” says Meikle.

“It’s a lot more underground than it’s ever been.”

The centre has launched a mobile app to better help clients, he says. Staff correspond through the app with about 800 people a month — half of them from Saskatchewan.

Statistics Canada says Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Nova Scotia led the way with the highest number of police-reported human-trafficking violations from 2009 to 2016.

The agency counted 78 occurrences of human trafficking in the country in 2013. The figure jumped to 271 in 2017.

Saskatoon police Staff Sgt. Grant Obst says human trafficking in the city is largely related to the sex trade.

He says once victims are recruited — often with the promise of serious cash — the arrangement quickly dissolves and they are moved to different jurisdictions, where a person in control arranges dates for them online.

It’s rare for their officers to lay human trafficking charges because victims are too fearful to come forward, Obst says. Not only are they likely to have been brutalized, their families are threatened or they are kept isolated.

“We can always hope that the individual will get so scared that they may come to the police, and that does happen,” he says.

Saskatoon police did recently charge a 23-year-old woman with human trafficking. Investigators allege the woman stole the money and belongings of two 20-year-old women from Quebec and an 18-year-old woman from Moose Jaw, Sask., in an attempt to control them.

“But what happens more often than not is that they’re scared to death,” Obst says.

“They run and hide and they don’t talk to the police.”

Wallace began changing her life after she turned 30 and now shares her dirty little secret in hopes of helping other women.

“It’s such a heavy, heavy thing to carry.”

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