For nearly three decades, RESET, or the Rapid Exit from Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking society, has stood watch over the victims of Calgary’s illicit sex trade.
Formerly known as Servants Anonymous, they’ve seen women come through their doors who’ve been coerced, beaten and abused, struggling to escape a life they never chose, often battling a myriad of addictions.
They’ve witnessed the shift of prostitution from street-side and red-light districts to a near-endless stream of websites advertising escorts; helped girls as young as 12 and women in their mid-80s re-integrate into a society they believe has forgotten them; and educated the formerly-trafficked in life skills, emotional stability and money management.
“We get referrals from all over Canada,” says Liz Gibson, the society’s program manager who has been with RESET for 10 years. Referrals in Calgary come mainly from hospitals such as Peter Lougheed, Foothills and Rockyview, as well as Remand, and drug and alcohol treatment centres. But they also come from the victims themselves.
“They call me in, and I talk to them briefly over the phone. I ask them a few pointed questions. I tell them what our mandate is — working with sex-trafficked and exploited women — ‘Is that something you can relate to?’”
Gibson explains the questions are designed to be easily answered with a “yes” or “no,” because there's no telling if at that point the victim is still in the room with their abuser.
“So, when she comes in, I know she’s answered ‘yes,’” says Gibson. “Then I’ll ask her questions like: ‘Did you work inside or outside? Was it an escort agency? Was it a massage parlour?’”
“They’re usually very open at that point. The women are done. They want out.”
Climbing up from rock bottom
It’s hitting this “rock bottom” where RESET steps in, enrolling new clients in a year-long program that begins with a four-week stabilization and observation.
From Monday to Friday, former victims are taught about life skills, emotional intelligence and are helped to deal with their trauma. They’re also enrolled in work programs, to help them earn money now that they’re no longer being trafficked.
“Very few of them come in with picture I.D., so, we get that replaced,” says Gibson. “We get their immediate medical needs attended to. We get them on to AlbertaWorks, so they can get a wee bit of money. We do healthy relationships, codependency, all that stuff.”
However, even with a thorough rehabilitative program that helps upwards of 80 women a year, a major problem lies in helping formerly-trafficked women dealing with trauma and mental health issues get access to psychiatrists.
“When we get the women in here, their mental state is really bad, and trying to get them hooked up with psychiatrists within a reasonable time is pretty hard,” says Gibson. “It’s months, sometimes, to get them.
“Sometimes, when they have some psychosis going on, we take them to the hospital, but they don’t keep them, and they send them back. That’s way beyond our mandate, but we still work with them, because what are we going to do? Send them back out there to be vulnerable again?”
Gibson says very few graduates of the RESET program go back to the streets afterwards, and many end up attending post-secondary institutions to pursue degrees that would allow them to help other victims of trauma, such as social work, drug and alcohol counselling and psychology.
“What I believe and see is, when these women come in, they’ve forgotten how to dream,” says Gibson. “That there’s a future for them, because they’re stuck in this, and when they come in to us, it takes them a bit, a couple of months, for the fog to lift and realize that.”
“Their self-esteem starts improving … they start to dream of what they wanted to do when the teacher asked them at six, because they never answered: ‘I want to be an escort. I want to be sex-trafficked and exploited.’”
Dispelling what you think you know about sex trafficking
Paul Rubner, a 27-year detective with the Calgary Police Service (CPS), got his start with both the Counter-Exploitation Unit and RESET back in 2009, where he primarily works with exploited youth. Rubner says there’s a misconception surrounding society’s idea of how sex trafficking actually works and happens.
“There’s a general perception amongst the general population that exploitation and trafficking is what’s portrayed on television or on the big screen, and that’s simply not the case,” says Rubner. “We’re not encountering truckloads of women being transported from Saskatoon to Calgary, for example, but it is happening. It’s happening in every large centre and small town in the province.”
To combat this, CPS and RESET have partnered to form the Sexual Exploitation Training and Awareness (SETA) conference which is set to take place on Oct. 1-2 at the Best Western Plus Village Park Inn on Crowchild Trail NW.
“When we take part in events like the conference coming up in the fall, it’s done in an effort to bring some general awareness to what the reality is in Calgary and Alberta contrasted against what many people think when somebody mentions trafficking,” explains Rubner. “They’ve got a picture in their mind, and we want to more closely align the reality with that picture.”
According to a SETA press release, the CPS estimates that “roughly 3,000 women are caught in the [sex] trade,” with the average recruitment age bring between 13 and 14 years old.
Rubner calls that number “a guesstimate.”
“In Canada, it’s an understudied population,” says Rubner. “Nobody ever just comes out and says, ‘I’ve been trafficked, or I’m being trafficked.’ We have to go by anecdotal information, women we speak to in programs such as [RESET], ads that we might see online on various different platforms.
“The city does their homeless count every year, and they try to get some sort of quantitative analysis as to how many people are currently homeless in Calgary. No study like that has been done in Calgary for sexually-exploited individuals.”
“Well, it’s not something people want to talk about, or acknowledge that it’s happening in their backyard, right?” interjects Gibson.
“It’s an uncomfortable topic,” Rubner replies. “Some of the victims that we’re dealing with are 13 years of age.”
Calgary: Sex trafficking happens here
The speed of which traffickers operate can happen in a matter of hours, Gibson and Rubner explain. Over their years working with this marginalized population, they’ve seen instances where women have answered unrelated ads on Kijiji in Edmonton, only to end up in Calgary being sexually-exploited.
“It can happen very quickly,” says Rubner. “There is a definite process that takes place, and that process can take place over a matter of hours, or a matter of days and weeks … depending on the vulnerability of the victim.”
“They’re their boyfriend, or somebody that’s pursuing them,” Gibson explains. “Giving them the attention that they’re craving, or they need. They start buying them things. We’ve had women in here where their pimps have bought them laptops, purses.”
“The recruiters and the groomers, the traffickers, are very adept at finding what’s missing and filling that void,” Rubner adds. “And it’s not just Calgary. It’s North America. It’s the world, really, but we don't see it on the scale that they do in Europe, or the United States, for example. It’s based on population density … but it’s certainly happening here, it’s happening across the province.”
“Pick any flight coming from eastern Canada today, and we can go up there, to the airport, right now, and see somebody, I guarantee, who is being moved from eastern Canada to here to work as an escort. She’ll be here for a couple of weeks, and then she’ll go back. Pick a flight.”
From the red light to online
The shift to online platforms such as Craigslist and the now-defunct Backpage has made the trafficking and sale of women who are being sexually-exploited harder to monitor. Rubner says that for each website that’s shut down, two or three more are there to pick up the slack.
“The Internet provides anonymity,” says Rubner. “That’s the other part of the challenge for law enforcement, for any agency that’s working with an exploited population, trying to keep up with the technology. It’s impossible.”
“The [Calgary Police Service] does it with great difficulty, but it’s like eating soup with a fork.”
“What I believe and see is, when these women come in, they’ve forgotten how to dream” - Liz Gibson, RESET
Every year, the CPS dedicates four days for a national operation, which includes RESET, to try and identify escorts online and get them out of the lifestyle. However, the response rate is slim. Rubner explains that if 300 women are contacted, they may only meet face-to-face with between 25 and 40.
“Having said that, just because we encounter somebody and they say no, it doesn’t mean the door is closed,” says Rubner. “Every person that we contact gets one of our business cards, has our phone numbers, has our emails, and they get the message that down the road, whether it’s tomorrow, next week, next month, next year — if you change your mind, you pick up the phone, and the offer stands.”
By partnering with RESET, the Calgary Police Service finds a credibility that may have been previously lost due to many negative interactions with the police while being sexually trafficked, Rubner explains.
“Very often, when we encounter these women, they’ve never had an interaction with a man that didn’t want anything from them,” says Rubner. “It’s very often that this is the first interaction with the police where they haven’t been in trouble, and have been treated like human beings instead of a criminal.”
“The women are able to leave here with a different mindset of the Calgary city police,” says Gibson of Rubner. “That not all of them they’ve come across have been rude to them, or whatever. There’s good guys, good men, out there.”
Rubner, who Gibson describes as non-threatening, has had a very positive influence on the RESET program’s rehabilitative classes, and helps the women deal with legal issues, warrants and humanizes the relationship between the CPS and victims of sex trafficking.
“A lot of the time, women, youth, people that I deal with are just looking for advice or some clarity that they haven’t had before,” says Rubner. “[They say] ‘Well, this one time this cop did this,’ and I try to answer these questions, even with the fact that I wasn’t there when it happened.”
What Calgarians need to know
Gibson says one thing that mainstream society needs to know is that sex trafficking can happen to anybody, from daughters to nieces, aunts and mothers. An important distinction, in particular with the gendered language, is that while men are exploited, it’s mostly for labour purposes, rather than sexual, in Alberta.
“Typically, in Alberta, at least, male trafficking victims are typically trafficked for labour,” says Rubner. “That will go then to the RCMP for investigation … [but] it is happening.”
“I’m aware of a number of investigations that the RCMP have been involved with involving labour trafficking from Red Deer, St. Paul, of course Calgary, Edmonton. It’s under-reported, for sure, but it does happen.”
“Pick any flight coming from eastern Canada today, and we can go up there, to the airport, right now, and see somebody, I guarantee, who is being moved from eastern Canada to here to work as an escort." - Detective Paul Rubner, CPS
RESET deals only with female victims of sex-trafficking, and Rubner says it’s not just the disadvantaged that are victims.
“There are no socioeconomic boundaries,” he says. “Race is not a barrier. Religion is not a barrier. Country of origin is not a barrier. Bank accounts are not barriers. It’s what is missing in an individual’s life at any given point, and if that individual is identified by somebody intent on taking advantage of them, they can be victimized.
“Even though some say they’re doing it voluntarily, once you start peeling back the layers … you’ll find that there’s sexual assaults and sexual abuse going back, most often, prior the age of five.”
The Action Coalition on Human Trafficking (ACT Alberta) was created in 2010 through a network of service agencies aimed at responding to the needs of victims (18 and older), and working to identify and respond to human trafficking.
“Our mission is essentially to increase knowledge and awareness on human trafficking, and then we also advocate for effective rights-based responses, and that includes building capacity with all of our involved stakeholders,” says Jessica Brandon, manager of training and education at ACT Alberta.
The lack of awareness of human and sex trafficking happening in Alberta, along with the minimal resources to combat it, are the biggest concerns for ACT. There’s only two safehouses in Calgary, and one bed reserved for ACT to place a victim.
“Personally, before I actually was working with ACT … I volunteered at Law Day, at the Calgary law courts,” says Brandon. “I manned a booth, and probably five out of 10 people were surprised to see that any kind of trafficking happened here in Alberta, [or] in Canada.”
Statistics are harder to pin down on the numbers of individuals being trafficked provincially and nationally, but according to a report by The Globe and Mail, of the 330 cases the RCMP has identified, 311 — 94 per cent — are domestic.The International Labour Organization has estimated worldwide annual profits from forced sexual exploitation at $99 billion (USD).
“The first questions we would ask would be: Are you safe to talk to me? Is there anything I can do to make you safer while we speak?” says Brandon. “It depends on the type of exploitation, right? So, if it’s labour, it’s going to be different than if it’s sex trafficking.”
Making sure the victim is safe, and ensuring they’re getting the right help comes first. ACT works specifically with exploitation cases, which means other issues will be transferred to a different agency to help.
“It’s been sensationalized by movies, like Taken,” says Brandon. “I mean trafficking isn’t always Taken, it’s not the movie Taken. It could very well be the worker that handed you your breakfast sandwich at the fast food restaurant 10 minutes ago.”
Brandon added that at ACT most victims are those that are marginalized in some way, whether by poverty, race, gender, sexual orientation and they are often more vulnerable to becoming a victim of sexual exploitation.
“They might come across as confused, maybe aggressive, because of what they’ve been through” - Jessica Brandon, ACT Alberta
“Even victim-blaming, systemic racism, there’s so much. I think the 'I Believe You' campaign is a really great start for us as well. There’s so much we can do, I think just being a good neighbour, and being mindful, spreading awareness, talking about it. I mean it’s not the most pleasant thing to talk about, but it’s definitely something that [we] need to be aware of is happening in their own backyard.”
Creating awareness also means individuals shouldn’t be afraid of reporting something that seems off, whether that’s to Crime Stoppers, ACT Alberta or by dialing 211, which connects callers to a distress centre for those in danger or in need of assistance.
Brandon says that when it comes to law enforcement and service providers, there needs to be a victim-centred mindset, because they are generally going to be the first to come in contact with individuals who have been trafficked.
“They might come across as confused, maybe aggressive, because of what they’ve been through,” says Brandon. “Maybe they have a fragmented disorganized memory, they can be very irrational.”
“Tonic immobility, that’s something we see a lot [with the victim response coordinators], where they have rape-induced paralysis. There’s patience that’s really needed, and space for the victim to tell their story, and very slowly pacing themselves.”
At the RESET conference, ACT’s workshop will be focusing on sex trafficking in Alberta and speaking on “indicators,” as well as “questions to ask if you suspect someone is being trafficked, and other things that you can do if you do run into someone who is being trafficked,” Brandon explains.
ACT Alberta is currently co-creating a realistic and evidence-based Community Action Plan through received funding from the City of Calgary's Crime Prevention Investment Plan.
The goal of the project is to “build a comprehensive picture of the current human trafficking situation in Calgary, exploring sex and labour trafficking of men and women across diverse populations and the current response in supporting survivors.”
- By Alec Warkentin and Casey Richardson