Investigators believe more than 20 vulnerable women in Edmonton were exploited by a human trafficking suspect who is alleged to have targeted victims dealing with addictions and experiencing homelessness.
Christopher Becks, 37, is facing seven charges, including one count each of trafficking in persons, procuring, receiving material benefit, advertising sexual services, sexual assault, overcoming resistance to commission an offence and uttering threats.
The charges all relate to one complainant who came forward in October 2022.
But Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) Staff Sgt. Chris Hayes said investigators believe there are at least 20 other women who were targeted by Becks – identified by investigators through online ads that they allege are connected to Becks.
"This is an extreme case," Hayes said Thursday.
"I haven't seen one in my experience with this many victims, but it is very common for a trafficker to have more than one victim."
Hayes said investigators believe Becks lured the women into working with him by promising drugs, food, shelter, money and security.
Barriers to reporting
Many of the women may have known Becks as "Bear," according to an ALERT news release about the case.
Hayes is hopeful more of the women they believe were exploited come forward, but said the circumstances many of the women are in — dealing with addictions, mental health, trauma and other challenges — have proved to be challenging.
"We're there to help these people move forward with their lives," he said.
"But having them trust police is hard and having them want to tell their story and really of that trauma is also a difficult barrier that we are faced with."
However after police shared details about the case on Wednesday, they heard from three new women, Hayes said.
He added that ALERT not only wants to hear allegations, but that the team has measures to connect women with resources and community supports.
He said ALERT's human trafficking units in Edmonton and Calgary both have embedded civilian employees who work with survivors, getting them access to any resources needed to leave an exploitative situation.
ALERT arrested Becks, who police say is from Ponoka, Alta., on Dec. 20, 2022 after executing a search warrant on a home in the Ottewell neighbourhood in Edmonton.
Becks has since been released on bail. His next court appearance is March 3.
Existing social issues
Between April and December 2022, ALERT made 20 arrests, laid 88 charges and intervened in human trafficking cases involving 17 victims across the province.
The Action Coalition on Human Trafficking (ACT) Alberta, which supports human trafficking survivors, has seen an increase in referrals since the beginning of 2023.
Executive director Kate Price said since mid-January trafficking survivors have been referred to ACT, eight of whom experienced sexual exploitation.
Properly addressing the issue of human trafficking means addressing the larger social issues that put victims in a vulnerable position in the first place, Price said.
"[Traffickers] can really just leverage the existing systems of repression that are in place," Price said. "The individuals that most traffickers target are traditionally people who are experiencing vulnerabilities in a variety of ways."
Price said investing in services such as emergency shelters, affordable housing and taking a harm reduction approach to addiction can help address vulnerabilities.
When it comes to helping people who have been victimized, Price said frontline agencies like ACT try to work alongside law enforcement as much as possible, trying to address barriers in reporting exploitation.
"The bias around the sex industry and around survivors is so significant that ... many survivors of sexual exploitation will not come forward to speak with law enforcement out of fear for their own personal safety – and rightly so," she said.
She said it's important for investigators to use a trauma-informed approach to make reporting as safe an experience as possible.
"Where the individual is approached with thoughtfulness and caution, and providing people the space to come forward on their own, and then providing them the respect they deserve to be able to have a voice is critical," Price said.
If someone is or has been the victim of human trafficking, here's where to get help:
The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is open 24 hours a day at 1-866-900-1010.
ACT Alberta is available during business hours at (780) 474-1104 or email us at email@example.com.
Both agencies are completely confidential.