People are bought and sold on the streets of Winnipeg, and education and awareness are the best weapons to fight it, says an MP fighting to stiffen laws against human trafficking in Canada.
"The public has to know human trafficking is going on in this city," said Tory MP Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul), just before leading hundreds of people in a Winnipeg march against the crime Saturday afternoon.
"Young girls and boys do it, not because they want to, but because they have been targeted... Education and awareness are our greatest weapons against human trafficking.
"We need to stop this horrendous crime in this country."
Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, agrees education is an important step to address the problem.
"We need to make young people leaving the reserve aware of the dangers and know what to look out for," Evans said.
Last year, Smith put forward a bill to amend Canada's Criminal Code to give a five-year minimum sentence for people convicted of trafficking minors. The bill has passed second reading and is currently being reviewed by a Senate committee.
The federal Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada (CISC) has reported that organized crime is involved in trafficking both foreign and Canadian-born women and girls within provinces, across the country, and into the United States. Groups mostly based in B.C. and Quebec are involved in trafficking people across international borders, but CISC notes street gangs recruit, control and exploit Canadian-born women in the sex trade, primarily in strip bars in several cities across the country.
Natasha Falle knows just how easy it is for vulnerable people to fall victim to trafficking.
Falle, 36, said she remembers every minute of the night 21 years ago when a man persuaded her to turn her first trick in Calgary's Chinatown and split the proceeds 50-50.
"It sounded like a business," Falle said.
"The 25-year-old man I met at a bar, which I got into with my fake ID, glamorized it. He didn't talk about the drug deals. I was just a 15-year-old kid from the suburbs."
Falle, who married her pimp during her years working the streets, managed to escape the life 12 years later.
She now counsels people involved in the sex trade and is the founder and executive director of Sextrade 101, an organization that promotes the rights of current and former prostitutes.
"I want the victims to know there is support out there," Falle said.
"If I talked to my pimp now, I would tell him he no longer has control over me.
"I'm in control now."
Firefighters keeping their eyes open
Winnipeg firefighters are joining the fight to extinguish human trafficking in the city.
Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said firefighters are now being trained to look for signs of human trafficking when they respond to calls. Forrest, who participated in Saturday's rally and march with several colleagues, said firefighters in British Columbia have already received the training and it has led to arrests.
"Many doors are locked to police, but there are not doors locked to firefighters," Forrest said.
"Firefighters have access like no others. We will be the eyes and ears for the law."