When the highly anticipated action-packed drama, The Sound of Freedom, hits the big screen at the Derrick Theatre in Virden this weekend, it will deliver a compelling message and shine a light on the very real issue of human trafficking.
The movie is based on the powerful true story of a U.S. federal agent’s dangerous personal quest to rescue and free children who have fallen victim to human traffickers. It portrays a despicable industry, shrouded by manipulation, control and corruption. And even though the storyline of the Hollywood film takes place in another country, the truth of the matter is that we don’t have to venture all that far from home to discover the incidence of human trafficking happening right under our noses.
Rural communities are not immune to the problem. This could happen to your friend, child or grandchild.
Local area resident, Nicole Hunter, is living proof that it can and does happen here at home. Now an important member of the victim services team at the Joy Smith Foundation, Hunter is able to offer insight to the team and provide an empathetic ear to survivors of sex trafficking, having lived the unfortunate two-year ordeal herself just over 13 years ago. Her courage and openness about a horrific personal experience have inspired countless young women by empowering them to heal from their past traumas and she serves as a beacon of hope for those who have lost their faith in mankind.
“People need to open up and talk about the hard stuff,” she said confidently of the decision to share her story and speak frankly in an exclusive interview about her experience only four years after hearing a presentation by Joy Smith at the Virden Alliance Church. It was then that she came to the shocking realization that she herself had been a victim of human trafficking.
“It was the first time I had acknowledged what had happened to me,” she admitted. Up until then, she had not processed her experiences and emotions, having instead tucked them neatly aside to become a wife and mother to four children.
“People don’t think it applies to their community, people think this happens in other places and to other people,” said Janet Campbell, CEO of the Joy Smith Foundation (JSF), an organization founded in 2012 by her mother, then Member of Parliament, Joy Smith of Winnipeg, to help human trafficking survivors and their families.
Joy Smith is credited with being the first sitting MP to amend the Criminal Code of Canada twice, bringing in minimum sentencing for traffickers of children under 18 years and secondly for the ability to prosecute traffickers who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents living abroad.
“Of the 7000 case files that have gone across my desk, I can tell you that this can happen to any family in any part of Canada. It is NOT someone else’s problem. Children are being bought and sold for sexual services on a daily basis.”
“People need to open up and talk about the hard stuff
Described as modern day slavery, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world second only to the drug trade, and has already surpassed the illegal arms trade. It’s big business in every corner of the country and in every neighborhood, including our small towns and rural communities. It knows no socio-economic or demographic boundaries. The Internet and social media have opened up a whole new way for predators to victimize the vulnerable. Less than a kilometer from where you live today, someone could be being trafficked and you wouldn’t even know it.
Campbell shared that with social media connections, a victim can be approached in under two minutes and kids can be convinced to meet a perpetrator in person in just 18 minutes of an on-line encounter.
“We were told as kids not to take candy from strangers or get in a stranger’s car,” said Campbell. “Nowadays, it’s completely different. Accepting a ‘friend’ request on social media from someone you don’t know is the equivalent of getting in the car with a stranger.”
Human trafficking is defined as the recruitment, transportation, or harboring of victims for the purpose of their exploitation for profit, usually in the sex trade or forced labour and is more common than one would think.
Virden is a very susceptible community to human trafficking activity due to its close proximity to the US border, the transient nature of industry and Virden’s location on the Trans-Canada Highway, makes it a perfect central location for traffickers transporting victims.
The average age of trafficking victims in Canada is 13, the majority are female and 93 per cent are Canadian-born.
The average profit per victim for a sex trafficker is $280,000 with most traffickers controlling multiple victims at any given time making it a lucrative criminal enterprise that’s going largely unnoticed.
What may be even more disturbing is the fact that in order for traffickers to require a supply, there must be a demand.
Traffickers could be among us and we may be unaware. Traffickers prey upon the vulnerable, skilled at luring and influencing their victims, first by gaining their trust and then maintaining control through threats, physical, sexual or mental abuse, manipulation and coercion.
“All it takes is the wrong person there at the wrong time, springboarding off your personal trauma or experiences and you suddenly become a victim,” Hunter shared.
She continued. “I realize now that the reason I was vulnerable to being trafficked was that I had no sense of self-worth,” she continued. “Every single survivor story I have heard has experienced some type of trauma... I had two of them. I was attacked by a dog and my face was disfigured when I was seven years old. Even though my parents told me I was beautiful, I didn’t believe it. Society puts so much focus on good looks, especially for girls and women. Then I was sexually assaulted when I was 18…. So, when my trafficker started paying attention to me and asking me out repeatedly and I got involved in a relationship with him, I became a victim very quickly. My parents knew there was something wrong, but they had no one to go to for help and nowhere to turn.”
She is thankful that the JSF is now in place to educate the public and to help survivors and their families. And that movies like The Sound of Freedom bring awareness and shed light on a dark, ugly reality.
“Joy Smith pioneered and paved the way before anyone else cared about victims,” Hunter said about the legacy that Smith and three generations of her family have created and continue to grow. “She’s a hero to me.”
Hunter is also looking forward to the launch of a new podcast planned for November called Luma and Bloom which she helped co-found as part of the outreach that the JSF provides. She and her colleague, Katelyn Campbell, will host open conversations about hard topics and how different scenarios might fuel human trafficking and make people more vulnerable.
She emphasized that all communities, especially rural ones, can and should play a pivotal role in fighting human trafficking as they are usually more close-knit and therefore in a better position to know if someone or something seems off.
“It takes communities to mobilize and be educated and aware, and send the message that human trafficking is not welcome in their community.”
JSF encourages people to empower themselves by getting educated on the topic so they are able to recognize the most common signs of sex trafficking and to reach out to a trusted individual for help if they feel at risk or know of someone suspected of being trafficked.
Free resources are available on the JSF website. Book a virtual or live workshop for schools or groups.
“It is easier to educate and prevent it from happening than it is to rehabilitate people once it has happened,” said Nicole Hunter.