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Trafficked woman hopes sharing her story will help girls back home in Akwesasne

Dussault is a former police officer who now runs workshops to teach the warning signs of human trafficking.  (Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Dussault is a former police officer who now runs workshops to teach the warning signs of human trafficking. (Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada - image credit)

WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

Sierra, 34, is a frail woman with piercing eyes that stand out from her long jet-black hair — nervous, but determined to speak out about how she survived what she calls a hellish ordeal.

Raised by a mother who moved frequently between the United States and Akwesasne — a Mohawk community bordering Cornwall, Ont. — Sierra says she had a chaotic childhood, including being raped several times.

It was in Texas, at the age of 14, that she met the man who later sold her.

The trafficker, twice her age and at first charming, began selling her to many clients, she says.

The first time traumatized her forever.

"I don't know how long it went on, how many men raped me. I just remember fainting many times from the pain," Sierra recalls. "I was praying to die … I disconnected from my body, and when I came to my senses, I couldn't walk or sit."

All the pain and rage I felt as an abused child rubbed off on my behaviour. All I wanted to do was rebel. - Sierra

The man kept her away from her family by controlling her every move, using several tactics to maintain his hold on her, she said.

"All the pain and rage I felt as an abused child rubbed off on my behaviour. All I wanted to do was rebel."

Sierra endured this ordeal for five months until she developed a serious infection and her trafficker, fearing she would die, left her in hospital in critical condition, she said. Doctors contacted her mother, who came to her bedside.

Once recovered, Sierra returned to Akwesasne and stayed at a rehabilitation centre for young girls before returning to school.

"The pain will fade with time, but the scars will remain. They allow us to never forget that we got through it. They remind you that you are a survivor, not a victim," Sierra said.

Akwesasne a lesser-known choice for sex traffickers

CBC has agreed to only identify Sierra by her first name because she fears repercussions for her career.

Throughout her interview, she held the hand of Patrick Dussault, a human trafficking liaison officer at a family wellness centre in Akwesasne.

Dussault, a former Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer, says he helped a few women like Sierra during his law enforcement career — work he carries on today.

Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada
Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada

Sierra now lives in Akwesasne, a Mohawk traditional hunting and fishing ground where the French set up a mission in the 1750s and then had provincial and international borders laid over it.

Now located between Quebec, Ontario and New York state, the Mohawk territory has approximately 20,000 residents over about 90 square kilometres.

Akwesasne is susceptible to human traffickers because of its geographic location, Dussault said, because you can travel freely between Quebec and the United States with no border crossings.

It's also surrounded by the waters of the St. Lawrence River, a convenient channel for traffickers of weapons, tobacco — and people.

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

When the river is frozen, traffickers cross the borders via "the ice road" on foot or by snowmobile, often managing to evade the Canadian Coast Guard, Dussault said.

Traffickers also rely on Highway 401, a major trade corridor between Quebec and Windsor, Ont., that passes through Cornwall. Via the 401, they can stop in several cities to sell trafficked people and recruit others.

Although human trafficking is an under-reported crime, Statistics Canada said there were about 550 police-reported incidents of human trafficking in 2021 across Canada. The vast majority of those incidents were in large cities.

Between January and October 2022, Dussault counted 13 trafficking survivors who sought help from the centre. None of them were from the region, but all were sold in Akwesasne and Cornwall, he said.

"The girls recruited in Akwesasne rarely go to work there [because] the pimps want to break any ties a girl may have," Dussault said in a French interview.

"If a girl is recruited one morning [in Akwesasne], by tonight she'll be in Toronto, Windsor or Montreal. She won't be in Cornwall. She'll be as far away as possible."

According to Dussault, three women from Akwesasne have received services as victims of sex trafficking in the last five months.

Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada
Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada

Indigenous women most at risk

About 50 per cent of the victims of human trafficking in Canada are Indigenous women, even though they represent less than five per cent of the total population, according to a report released in 2020 by Public Safety Canada.

It's not uncommon for traffickers to set up shop outside of group homes to target the more fragile youth who are transiting out of the child welfare system.  - Chanel Blouin, Native Women's Association of Canada

Aziz Froutan, a spokesperson for the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, notes that, because of colonialism, exploitative experiences among Indigenous women are normalized in Canada.

Indigenous victims often don't go to the police and the authorities are not always properly trained to understand the realities of Indigenous women who are being exploited, Froutan adds.

Chanel Blouin, a policy advisor for the Native Women's Association of Canada, says Indigenous children, who are more often placed in the care of the child welfare system, are also more vulnerable to exploitation networks.

Submitted by Chanel Blouin
Submitted by Chanel Blouin

"It's not uncommon for traffickers to set up shop outside of group homes to target the more fragile youth who are transiting out of the child welfare system," she says.

Over-incarceration of Indigenous people and a general lack of resources make Indigenous women more vulnerable to human trafficking, she adds.

Working together to fight exploitation

All the experts Radio-Canada spoke to stressed that, given the illicit nature of human trafficking, most cases are not reported.

According to Luc Dumont, a detective staff sergeant with the OPP's human trafficking unit, police have seen an increase in the number of human trafficking cases in recent years.

Ontario has a higher annual average of reported human trafficking cases than other Canadian provinces, Dumont said.

In 2020, almost 60 per cent of reported human trafficking cases were reported in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada.

Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada
Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada

To address the growing volume and complexity of cases, Ontario launched a strategy in 2021 bringing together 21 municipal police services and Indigenous groups.

The joint team, which has tripled in size in three years, includes full-time investigators and analysts working to dismantle trafficking groups operating in Canada and beyond.

Dumont said it's difficult to attribute the increase in reported cases to any one factor. However, he says that increased awareness means people are more likely to recognize and report the problem.

It seems like every time we come up with new social networks or new online recruiting platforms, there are two more coming out. We're always a few steps behind. - Patrick Dussault

Dussault, the human trafficking liaison officer in Akwesasne, says it's crucial that different regions work together, pointing to the case of a young woman from Akwesasne who went missing late in 2022.

"She was reported missing to Mohawk police. Ten minutes later, she was located in Ottawa via an escort website. It is thanks to the American authorities that we were able to find this woman from our community," he said.

"It seems like every time we come up with new social networks or new online recruiting platforms, there are two more coming out. We're always a few steps behind."

Grand Chief Abram Benedict of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne says that while the Ontario government is providing more and more resources to combat human trafficking, funding remains low given the complexity of the issue in his territory.

Submitted by Mohawk Council of Akwesasne
Submitted by Mohawk Council of Akwesasne

"There has been a lot of investment in policing to combat gun trafficking, but much less to combat human trafficking," Benedict says.

"So we're lobbying the government to give the Mohawk police more resources for law enforcement, but also for prevention."

More police officers and more modern equipment are among the specific resources needed, he adds.

Sierra wants to educate

Sierra has not yet pressed charges against her abuser, who is currently serving time for other crimes. She said she is afraid, but may consider doing so one day.

She has decided to help tackle the issue of human trafficking in other ways.

She wants to work with Dussault, who runs prevention workshops aimed at families, police officers, social workers and at-risk girls that help participants recognize the signs of trafficking.

Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada
Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada

"I survived this for a reason," Sierra said. "I want people to know that it could happen to their sister or daughter.

"If I had known how to show signs, if my mother had known how to decode certain signs or ask questions, I could have been saved from the start.

"I want to give others the opportunity to be free from dangerous situations. It fills me with dignity and pride to know that I've been through this and am coming back to help. Here I am, 20 years later, strong enough to talk about it."

Support is available through the Ontario government for anyone who has experienced sexual violence or human trafficking. If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, call your local police service or the national human trafficking help line at 1-833-900-1010. It is open 24 hours a day. If there is immediate danger, call 9-1-1.