Montreal’s F1 race brings yearly sexual exploitation fears

Montreal’s F1 race has earned the reputation of turning the city into a hotbed for sexual exploitation and human trafficking, but some argue it’s a myth that merely serves to fuel a yearly crackdown on sex workers by authorities.

Every year, various groups stage campaigns to tackle a perceived uptick in the phenomenon, but Stella, a Montreal organization that advocates for sex-trade workers, says the evidence doesn’t back it up.

What women working in the trade do encounter during the week is an increased police presence as well as repression that has a lasting effect, said Stella executive director Sandra Wesley.

Wesley said police agencies will visit hundreds of sex workers under the guise of looking for victims of sexual exploitation and rooting them out through online ads and other techniques. Migrants who might be working in the trade find themselves at risk of deportation.

“It’s a very repressive climate and it is very focused over this one weekend, but the impact lasts all year because it really creates this climate of fear within the sex industry,” Wesley said.

“Year after year, they do this operation, they never find victims of trafficking or, if they do, it’s extremely marginal and operations like this only drive the industry further underground.”

A coalition of women’s groups says its own experience suggests exploitation and recruitment do indeed increase during the tourist-heavy Grand Prix week and that some of its own members have even been previously recruited in the leadup to the event.

“It’s difficult to invalidate their (Stella’s) experiences, but it’s not at all coherent with what we see and we are all groups that work with women,” said Eliane Legault, a spokeswoman for the Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle.

Legault said the organization launched a two-pronged campaign this year, with part of the focus on using social media to tell girls between the ages of 15 and 18 to be careful when confronted with recruitment pitches offering easy money.

“We’re asking young women to follow their instincts, to exercise their critical judgment,” Legault said.

This week, Legault said the focus also falls on reminding the clientele their interest encourages recruitment and that buying sexual services is illegal in Canada.

Montreal police Cmdr. Michel Bourque, who also heads the provincial exploitation task force, said he doesn’t have a scientific answer to give as to why the Grand Prix is linked to people being more inclined to seek out sexual services.

“It’s something that has been carried in the public domain, but how based on facts is this perception? I can’t really say,” he said.

Police reported nearly two dozen arrests last year, including many for seeking services from a minor.

This year, police have created a training tool specifically geared to Montreal tourism and hospitality staff to identify potential cases of trafficking.

But Wesley argues no one has ever been able to produce figures to back up the claims about the June weekend race.

“If you just think through this notion that thousands of woman would somehow be brought into the city by force to come and work for an event that is three, four days long … it makes no sense,” Wesley said.

For a third year, the RCMP is employing the Griffon Initiative, an awareness campaign involving several agencies in Canada and the United States that aims to prevent exploitation.

“With every major event, there is a rise in sexual exploitation,” said RCMP Sgt. Camille Habel. “We want people to realize that even if it’s just once for them, for someone else they are being victimized one more time.”

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