With Pan Am Games coming to Toronto, groups push to limit trafficking

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TORONTO - As Toronto gets set to host the Pan Am Games, rights campaigners are putting their best efforts into ensuring that the city does not become a playground for human traffickers while the multi-sport, billion-dollar event takes place.

Led by Catholic religious sisters, a broad coalition is getting ready for the July 10-26 Pan Am Games and the Aug. 7-15 Parapan Am Games by ramping up public education campaigns about human trafficking and the sex trade.

The Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network, headquartered at the FCJ Hamilton House Refugee Project and backed by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, is working on a "unified response model" that includes a hotline that can link victims to police, social workers, shelters, health care and more, said Varka Kalaydzhieva, the project coordinator.

"Human sex trafficking goes with national and international sporting events," the Rev. Karen A. Hamilton, an Anglican and general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, warned in Ottawa earlier this year. "And it will be coming to my city, because Toronto is hosting the Pan Am Games this summer."

With athletes from 41 countries participating, the Pan Am Games will be the largest multi-sport event held on Canadian soil.

The most visible anti-trafficking campaign will likely be the GIFT Box, a 10-foot-high structure at the Anglican Cathedral Church of St. James in downtown Toronto that will look like a present on the outside and tell the tale of enslavement and exploitation on the inside. The GIFT Box project, backed by the U.N. Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, was launched during the 2012 Olympics in London.

The idea is to show people just how victims are caught up in human trafficking, Kalaydzhieva said.

"It signifies or symbolizes the way they lure you into trafficking. Once you go into the box, once you are tempted, you open the gift and go inside," she said. "There it explains to you how human trafficking happens, what are the signs, some stories of survivors and how they were taken into trafficking."

While the GIFT Box tries to reach a public that may never have considered the issues around human trafficking, the aim is also to alert potential victims or those who may know victims and provide help.

But is there really a link between the kind of sport the Pan Am Games represent and the sex trade?

Sister Nancy Brown, a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, has no doubt about the link between sports and increased trafficking in boys, girls and women. She works with vulnerable youth at Covenant House in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was part of the Buying Sex is Not a Sport campaign during the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010,

"Yes, of course it increases," Sister Nancy said in an email, noting that "sport draws more males."

But it is "impossible to get numbers because of the hidden nature of the crime," she said.

Not all campaigners against human trafficking are so convinced.

"I've never been one to push the idea of links between sporting events and sex trafficking," said Sister Sue Wilson, director of the office of systemic justice at the Canadian Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada.

"Any evidence of increased numbers at events such as the Olympics or Pan Am Games is anecdotal at best," Sister Sue said.

Whether there's a specific link with sports or not doesn't much matter to Kelly Colwell, GIFT Box coordinator for the Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking.

"It's mostly that it seems like an opportune moment when there's a lot of pedestrians, a lot of foot traffic in the city, people out and enjoying the summer and likely to stop by and learn a little bit about trafficking," she said. "It's an opportunity to educate people about a phenomenon that's happening all the time."

Colwell said she is just as interested in fighting trafficking among construction workers, cleaning staff, personal care workers and other forms of anonymous, contracted-out labor.

A 2010 Royal Canadian Mounted Police report on human trafficking estimated that 90 percent of the human trafficking in Canada is for prostitution, and most of the victims are girls and women between the ages of 14 and 25. There has been a specific law on human trafficking in Canada since 2005, and about 50 cases have made it to court.

Anti-trafficking campaigners call this the tip of the iceberg.

Sister Sue said all forms of human trafficking need to be better understood.

"The reality is that both labor trafficking and sex trafficking happen every day in Canada," she wrote in an email.

"I prefer that people get that message, rather than focusing on big-event stories. We need to raise consciousness of the everyday types of exploitation that go on," she said.

While women's religious congregations have worked on the issue for decades and the Canadian Religious Conference, representing Catholic religious orders and institutes, has made it a priority since 2004, they have recently had a boost from Pope Francis.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the International Union of Superiors General put a spotlight on the global human trafficking crisis by declaring the first International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. It took place Feb. 8, the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave who eventually was freed and became a Canossian nun.

Pope Francis has called human trafficking "a crime against humanity." Meeting trafficking survivors, religious sisters caring for victims and dozens of senior police officials in April 2014, he called human trafficking "an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015