Canada’s Inuit face human trafficking fears

Indigenous women in the far north face high levels of sexual violence and exploitation, report says.

Poverty is one of the factors driving violence against women in Canada's north, researchers say [Reuters]

Inuit families sell their babies online, pimp out their daughters and turn a blind eye to human trafficking.

These are some of the claims made by Canadian consultant Helen Roos in a 159-page report released in November 2013, that presents anecdotal evidence of sexual abuse and human trafficking in Canada’s remote arctic regions. The report stirred public debate last month, when it was picked up by media across the world’s second largest country.

“Whether prostituting minors for sexual services or attempting to buy and sell children or teenage girls, there are indications of clandestine activities happening in Nunavut,” the report said, citing examples where a northern indigenous man tried to sell a child on Facebook, and a couple allowed a tenant to sleep with a minor living in their home as part of his lease agreement.

Roos told Al Jazeera that her research was inspired by frontline workers in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, who noted over 40 Inuit-specific cases of sexual exploitation and scenarios consistent with human trafficking over a four-year period.

Pauktuutit, an Inuit women’s organisation that has worked to improve the welfare of women and children since 1984, collaborated with Roos in her research. Its leaders said Canada needs to stop treating all indigenous women as if their circumstances are identical and start filling region-specific social service gaps.

“In Canada we have three recognised aboriginal peoples,” Katharine Irngaut, Pauktuutit’s abuse prevention manager, told Al Jazeera. “So there could be up to three different approaches to address human trafficking for all three groups. And it looks very different for what might happen in southern cities and communities where there might be different types of vulnerabilities,” she said.

Roos’ report was the first to focus exclusively on human trafficking in Inuit communities, but violence against indigenous women is not a new problem in Canada. The country’s Native Women’s Association has documented over 580 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women over the last 30 years. The Canadian government even launched a special committee last winter to investigate the issue. The committee released its findings last Friday, but failed to heed calls by aboriginal groups and opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties for a further, independent national inquiry.

Canada has produced nearly 40 reports in the last 15 years on the problem of violence against women.

True north strong and free?

Nunavut, Canada’s youngest territory, is home to some of the world’s most remote northern communities. A population of 35,591 people, roughly 84 percent Inuit, live scattered across 2,093,190 sqr km of land.

In Depth

Indigenous issues in Canada

   Protecting indigenous women

Much of the territory can only be reached by boat or plane. Their sheer remoteness, Pauktuutit argues, sets Inuit settlements apart from indigenous communities in the country’s south and exposes them to a slew of unique vulnerabilities. And in a region where a jug of milk can cost up to $12 and unemployment rates sit around 13 percent, almost double the national average, attracting specialists to address those vulnerabilities is challenging.

“More than 70 percent of the communities don’t have safe shelters for women,” said Tracy O’Hearn, Pauktuutit’s president. “There are very few specialised counseling services. There may be social worker positions that are not filled [and a] lack of addiction and substance abuse services. No sexual abuse specialised counselling, no psychiatrists, no psychologists, that sort of thing.”

Roos also identified low employment levels, few high-wage sector jobs and minimal education as factors that compound to either force people to take extreme measures in the north or to leave the region altogether.

“I think the biggest issue in the north is the local community pimping out [its] youth and women,” Roos said. “I think that’s very, very rampant. Even community members themselves [and] survivors have said in certain communities it’s well known to be happening.”

Roos identified poverty as the major driving factor behind people turning to such extremes.

“Poverty is a huge thing if you don’t have any options, if you don’t have any viable education or employment opportunities,” Roos told Al Jazeera. “Overcrowding is [a] huge [problem in northern Canada]. The average is 14 people in a two-bedroom home. There can be even more extreme cases. So it’s easy for someone to provide alternatives, especially for young women,” she said, adding that these alternatives often include working in the sex industry in cities like Ottawa and Montreal.

But she also argued that Inuit women who move to the south are extremely marginalised and often turn to the sex industry when they have no support or ability to meet their basic needs.

O’Hearn agreed, adding that: “Far too often women who are desperate will exchange sex in return for a roof over their head [and] for food.”

Patterns etched in history

Unlike First Nations, Inuit do not fall under the jurisdiction of Canada’s Indian Act, a controversial piece of legislation that has governed many aspects of aboriginal life, ranging from land rights to restrictions on culture, for decades. But this does not mean Inuit communities have lived free from federal government intervention.

Peter Kulchyski is a Native Studies professor at the University of Manitoba and an expert on aboriginal and treaty rights. He told Al Jazeera that when he first heard of the possibility of human trafficking from Canada’s north, he was reminded of past instances of forced relocation.

There's still the perception that human trafficking is what happens to other people in other countries.

by - Helen Roos, researcher

During the 1950s, a famine hit parts of the Canadian arctic and “the government went from sort of trying to ignore the Inuit and let them live the way they’d always lived to sort of moving in and taking over,” Kulchyski said. “They centralised the hunting camps into communities, provided housing for them, but it was always substandard housing.”

Thousands of Inuit were also brought to southern sanatoriums during the 1950s and 1960s following outbreaks of tuberculosis (TB), a highly infectious lung disease. “They pulled families apart and relocated people to sanitariums in the south,” Kulchyski said. “Some of those people died and their families never knew what happened to them.”

Records indicate that between 1953 and 1961, a total of 5,240 Inuit were sent south for TB treatment. Those who did not die were often returned to different communities in the north. Likewise, many women who leave Nunavut in search of better lives in the south, often disappear or never reconnect with their families, according to Roos.

What problem?

Few statistics are available on human trafficking in Canada, so it is difficult to prove the extent of the problem using only anecdotal evidence. “There’s still the perception that human trafficking is what happens to other people in other countries,” Roos said.

Her report has attracted criticism for this reason.

Leona Aglukkaq, a Nunavut member of parliament, declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, but was quoted by the territory’s Nunatsiaq News weekly paper as saying, “I think the author should be taken to task and be able to report to the territorial government on how she concluded her findings.”

Activists believe the government has not done enough to protect indigenous women [Al Jazeera]

Peter Dudding, Nunavut’s director of children and family services, also told Al Jazeera that Roos’ report felt a bit like a science experiment. “One gets a sense in terms of, well, there’s the outside world or kind of mainstream Canada looking at us from a deficit lens rather than looking at our strengths.”

But the report also garnered some support from the north. A Nunavut mother wrote a letter to Nunatsiaq News slamming Aglukkaq for her reaction to the research. “Many of our girls and women have met some southern low-life up here and, looking for a better life, have followed him back down south.” She went on to say that “so many girls and women have long, sad stories to tell and thank goodness they are telling them. What do we do though? We shoot the messenger who took the time to tell us!”

Roos, Irngaut and O’Hearn all agree that more still needs to be done to fully understand the extent of trafficking and exploitation of Inuit women in Canada.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg to hear stories and to see what’s happening,” Roos said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered for the funeral service of a young Inuit woman named Loretta Saunders last Saturday. Her body was discovered in a snow-covered highway median in the province of New Brunswick two weeks ago. Her roommates have been charged with first-degree murder.

Saunders was a student at Saint Mary’s University when she disappeared and was writing her thesis on Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Source: Al Jazeera