Human trafficking discovered near home

“Thunder Bay cited a hub for human trafficking of women and children”

By Stephanie Simko,

News Editor


The Understanding and Working with Children and Youth who have been Sexually Exploited/Trafficked workshop ran last week out of the Salvation Army Community Church in an effort to raise awareness about human trafficking. The intensive five-day training course was aimed at front-line service providers, law enforcement, social workers, victim witness protection staff, legal clinics, community organizations, child welfare workers, teachers, and nurses. The workshop was hosted by the Alliance against Modern Slavery (AAMS) in partnership with the United States Embassy and the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The workshops are being held throughout Ontario, which has the highest number of convictions and cases of human trafficking.

The AAMS is a unique multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual organization that works tirelessly to raise awareness about, conduct groundbreaking research on, and devise solutions to end human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Since launching in 2009, the not-for-profit charitable organization has assisted survivors of human trafficking, travelled internationally to perform anti-slavery work, and created a school curriculum to educate and raise awareness about contemporary slavery.

President and Co-Founder of the AAMS Karlee Anne Sapoznik shares that there are approximately thirty million people worldwide in slavery today—six thousand of which are in Canada—and the average age of victims is thirteen with a range of eleven to twenty-two. However, most frontline groups predict the numbers are actually much higher than this. “Many people think that slavery has been abolished, but in fact this is something that affects all countries.”

Public awareness of human trafficking in the area spiked after University of Minnesota Masters student Christine Stark spoke out about her research into the sexual servitude of Aboriginal women and cited Thunder Bay as a hub for human trafficking of women and children. Stark says the port at Duluth is notorious among First Nations people as a site for trafficking women and says she has anecdotal reports of women, teenage girls and boys, as well as babies being sold on ships for sex.

“I have spoken with a woman who was brought down from Thunder Bay on the ships and talks about an excessive amount of trafficking between Canada and the Duluth-Superior harbour,” Stark said in an interview with CBC. “Hearing from so many Native women over generations talking about the ‘boat whores,’ prostitution on the ships, or the ‘parties on the ships,’ this is something that … was really entrenched in the Native community and we wanted to collect more specific information about it.”

“When it comes to the most visible aspects of sexual slavery, the Aboriginal population is unfortunately over-represented,” admits Sapoznik. “Historically, we know that people have been enslaved within Canada, with a majority of this demographic being Aboriginal. Aboriginal women are more structurally vulnerable, as a result of the legacy of colonialism and the residential schools. This really serves to show how little has changed in these structures.”

Sapoznik stresses that this is still an issue that affects all groups of people, using the Thunder Bay back pages as an example of advertisements seeking out women and youth of all backgrounds.

Workshop facilitator Jennifer Richardson says she hopes the workshops will help community workers be able to identify human trafficking and provide resources for exploited children and youth. “This is a very hidden social issue and people tend to think that human trafficking doesn’t exist because they don’t see it on the streets. Street exploitation is a very small percent of what is happening, maybe 20 percent—that leaves 80 percent of exploitation happening behind closed doors or online.”

Richardson recognized a huge gap in treatment for exploited children while working with addiction units in Manitoba and the U.S. While she has seen a lot through her twenty years in social work, Richardson has first-hand experience in human trafficking: she was exploited as a child, beginning when she was thirteen and lasting for two and half years. With the support of her family, Richardson was able to “escape the game” and be removed from the abuse.

Both Sapoznik and Richardson were not shocked at Stark’s findings that Thunder Bay is a source, destination, and hotspot for human trafficking. Sapoznik shares that there is a well-known “circuit” between Winnipeg, Kenora, and Thunder Bay in which women and children are transported, as well as dozens of other tracks tracing across the country.

“Thunder Bay is right on the Trans Canada so people will be moved through the city or sent here,” explains Richardson. “There are also people in transient professions, such as men travelling on ships, for hydro rigs or skilled labour for developments, and that brings up the potential demand for sex trade in the city.”

Participants in the workshop shared that this type of information should be brought into the school system to start raising awareness early, as well as speaking directly to the demographic that is being affected. Sapoznik is optimistic that progress can be made through a collaborative effort with frontline service providers, law enforcement, representations from the vulnerable communities, survivors, and political agents.