Project Guardian has eyes on human trafficking in the NWT

A poster from the RCMPs Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre. RCMP photo
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The eight RCMP G Division members on a federal mandate to work on human trafficking in Yellowknife also have a lot of other priorities on their hands: money laundering, organized and financial crime, opioids, Northern sovereignty and VIP visits.

Yet these eight RCMP members, all male, have also been running Project Guardian since 2017. They meet with women who are listing their sexual services online and offering them a way out, should they want it. They are also reaching out to hotels, hospitals, staff at schools and community organizations – including a presentation at the Native Women’s Association of the NWT Wednesday.

Human trafficking is varied – it could be a new immigrant to Canada forced to work for fear of their family being endangered or a young man brought into the sex trade by a lover. Cst. Heather Conenzo says a 2013 study found victims were usually women in the 14 to 22 age range who “are most susceptible to traffickers when they need financial support or they desire love and affection.”

In the NWT Constables Trent Hayward and Gregory Fracassi say they have so far only witnessed young women trafficked for sex. They come from the communities to Yellowknife, which investigators see as a hub, or from southern Canada to the city. The clientele, according to a sex worker Hayward and Fracassi spoke with, are mainly middle- to late-aged married men.

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Project Guardian members arrange dates through Leolist, an online classifieds site which lists escort services, to talk with the women. They also conduct surveillance on suspected pimps and the women they are with. Hayward says they witness difficult conditions for some of these women.

“A lot of them have their passport taken away, they don’t have their phones. Again, they could be in a hotel for 10 hours at a time and basically one customer after one customer,” he says.

“When our members have gone in there, all it is is just basically fast food wrappers and they’ll provide lingerie and sex toys and stuff like that because that’s what the customers want. But it’s not like they’re getting 30 per cent of the wage or anything like that, it all goes back to the pimp or to whoever is controlling them.”

What they’ve witnessed won’t show up in statistics, as very few cases of human trafficking are ever reported and fewer are brought to the courts. There is only one charge for human trafficking in the territory.

“Until they let us in a little bit, it is very difficult to do anything criminal code-wise. And that’s why the Guardian is to put us out there, to give them options. Again a lot of people don’t feel that they can,” Hayward says.

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The only reason why RCMP knew about Jessie, brought into the sex trade and addiction by a lover, was that the car she was traveling in with her traffickers hit a bison on their way out of Yellowknife in late 2017.

She came to the RCMP with her story. This resulted in the first human trafficking charge in the NWT, but the perpetrators were never sentenced. When it came time to witness, she said she didn’t remember anything about the incident.

“Because of this file that we investigated, essentially it’s opened our eyes to that this does happen in the North…It’s obviously a problem in big cities but it’s also a problem in smaller communities,” Fracassi says.

Project Guardian can be reached through the Yellowknife RCMP’s detachment at 867-765-3900.

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