Her friend had cash, clothes and cigarettes.
Aimee Chalifoux was in and out of foster care, bathing herself in mall washrooms and struggling to get clean clothes.
“I was sort of in awe,” said Chalifoux. “She always had money. She always had clothes.”
Chalifoux was in eighth grade at Woodlands Secondary School in Nanaimo when she first met her older, 15-year-old friend. They hung out, her friend fed her and she had money to party. She would often tell Chalifoux that she could make money too by going on “dates” with men and she could help set her up with guys.
Chalifoux didn’t really know what that meant, but on a bad day when she was tired of having nothing and being hungry, she decided to find out.
It was the first time she traded sex for money. She was 14 years old.
“I was really easy pickings to exploit because I had no self-esteem or self-empowerment or the ability to recognize what was happening to me,” said Chalifoux, 45, who now works with Nanaimo’s Community Action Team in outreach for women in the sex trade.
Don’t sensationalize the story, she says with solemn eyes. She wants people to believe it and know it can happen to anybody.
“I had a loving family and I was out of control and nobody knew how to help me.”
Exploitation of underage girls and vulnerable women and trafficking is a reality in Canada. Social agencies, police and health-care workers know Nanaimo isn’t immune.
Work is underway to bring awareness to the issue, but gaps still exist.
Sex trafficking is a global industry, generating $99 billion US in profits, according to the 2014 From Heartbreaking to Groundbreaking report by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
The average annual profit for each female trafficked in Canada is $280,800, with the most financial gain for girls under the age of 18.
The majority of those trafficked are women, and while there’s no single way they’re brought into the sex trade, experts agree it’s the vulnerable who are most often targeted – young girls who have run away, are having trouble at home or living on the streets.They can be lured by money, a sense of security, love or drugs and controlled through intimidation and mobility.
Reza Moazami was recently sentenced to 23 years for 30 prostitution-related offences involving teenagers, some as young as 14 and 15 years old. The case detailed how young girls were drawn into the sex trade – most were introduced to Moazami through a friend and several worked out of hotels in different cities, including Nanaimo, court documents show.
“In Nanaimo, absolutely sex trafficking exists,” said Shelly Maunula, an outreach worker with Haven Society.
“Most people, when they’re thinking about sex trafficking, they’re thinking international, they’re thinking there’s a foreign face to it, where actually the majority is domestic.”
That means it’s Canadians, moved up and down the Island, between B.C. and Alberta, sometimes even across the country by pimps, boyfriends or whoever is orchestrating and profiting from them, she said.
It’s not as visible as the outdoor, survival sex trade.
Women are advertised in online classifieds like Craigslist and Back Page, through escort agencies and massage parlors. Sex is sold indoors, in apartments and hotels.
Outside of professionally trained people involved in outreach, enforcement or child protection, it’s largely invisible and people don’t recognize it or see it, according to Cpl. Dave LaBerge with the Nanaimo RCMP bike unit.
One of the significant elements of exploitation is social isolation and moving victims away from friends and family, he said.
If someone grows suspicious or makes a report to authorities, the trafficked women are moved someplace else. Police see scenarios where people are moved into an apartment building and services are advertised. Officers knock on the door and encounter a terrified, non-English speaking woman who says very little. When police try to follow up a day or two later, the apartment has been shut down.
The police “pick up these sniffs all the time that it’s going on” and have come to realize dealing with it means high-level collaboration in the community, from school staff to health-care providers and social workers. The RCMP prompted a sex-trade cohort, made up of 17 organizations, to help tackle sex-trade issues in Nanaimo.
Those who deal with youths at risk need to be aware of the red flags, LaBerge said, like a lack of ties to the community and no friends or social network. They don’t have their own identification and someone is hovering around them and speaking on their behalf.
Aimee Falkenberg is a big proponent of education on the signs of trafficking, as coordinator of the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital’s forensic nurse examiner program and one of the creators behind the Help, Don’t Hinder tool kit which makes health-care providers and others aware of the signs of human trafficking.
Falkenberg wants to see education for young girls on risk factors and more conversation about trafficking. Vancouver Island has a need for a safe place for trafficked people to transition and get drugs out of their system.
“A lot of our patients that have come in have been drugged for a very, very long time as a control tactic,” she said.
Violet Hayes, executive director of Island Crisis Care Society, sees the same gap. Detox is also needed, where those who have been trafficked are not exposed to people who may get them back into it or threaten them, and where they can get help before they get to a safe house.
Nanaimo’s sex-trade cohort, which includes the crisis society, is in the process of creating the city’s first action plan to reduce harm in the sex trade. Its focus, however, is less on trafficking and more on exploitation. A draft of the strategy shows a push to get resources and services to protect youths from exploitation and change consumer behavior.
John Horn, city social planner and group facilitator, says social agencies can’t tackle international criminal enterprises. Even with domestic trafficking, there’s a significant crime, so it’s left to the police while the cohort focuses on the women who are exploited.
“That’s really the boundary that contains our work, otherwise we can be running around chasing transnational gangs,” he said. “What we really want to do is keep the woman safe and keep them healthy and then give them a way out of the business if they want that.”