Human trafficking is largely perceived as an overseas issue, but a local MP is working to change that.
Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul) said people in local communities are at risk of exploitation, and her charity, the Joy Smith Foundation, is working to raise awareness of human trafficking while helping its victims.
On Oct. 5, the foundation held its first annual Ride for Refuge, a bike-a-thon that featured 112 riders in eight cities, including Winnipeg. In all, the event raised $54,000. As well, Ipsos Reid held a weeklong fundraising blitz to support the foundation.
"People think that traffic victims come from abroad — and they do — but the majority of them come homegrown, from here in Canada," said Smith, who has been an MP since 2004. "They’re easily manipulated, easily scared, and what people don’t realize is, often, perpetrators come onto victims as their friends, not their enemies."
Smith added many of the victims are between 12 and 17 years of age, and are looking to fill a void in their lives and turn to the traffickers, who then get them away from their support systems.
"In Canada, a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it," Smith said. "They thought all these girls who were on the streets were bad girls. They’re not on the street anymore – most of them are in hotels, because that’s how the perpetrators work."
Smith first started the foundation after hearing of the effects of trafficking from her son, an RCMP officer who worked as part of the Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit.
In the approximately one year that the foundation has been operating, it has raised nearly $100,000 that flows to organizations needing help almost as quickly as it comes in from donors. One major impact the foundation has already made is to help an Edmonton safe house for victims, WIN House, open with a $10,000 donation. The foundation has also provided assistance to a secret safe house here in Winnipeg.
"There are trafficking cases all over this country," Smith said. "The problem is once (victims) are rescued, there’s no place for them to go. They need counselling, food, clothing — all sorts of things like that. That’s what the foundation provides to non-governmental organizations who have their charity numbers and who are looking after these traffic victims."
Smith explained victims of trafficking must overcome experiences including being raped, drugged against their will, and forced into slavery — including prostitution — which can net traffickers anywhere from $260,000 to $280,000 per victim.
"(People need to) become aware of how the perpetrators work," Smith said. "It’s very simple — it’s all about money.
"They don’t care what happens to these young girls or boys, it’s just about the money."
Smith said anyone being exploited should contact police as quickly as possible.
"I know they’re threatened. A lot of them have undergone terrible beatings to teach them how to act. But the fact of the matter is the only way we can keep them safe is to get them away from the traffickers," Smith said. "They’re innocent victims, and they need to know that. We’re on their side."
For more, visit www.joysmithfoundation.com.