Aboriginal women and girls are easy prey for human traffickers because they are more likely to suffer from poverty, drug addictions and mental-health problems, says a newly disclosed report.
The Public Safety Canada study sheds new light on how women and girls are forced into the sex trade by pimps acting as boyfriends, small, loosely defined gangs and even members of their own families.
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The previously unreleased research is bound to add fuel to the fire raging in Canada over the Conservative government's refusal to hold a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls.
Many people who took part in the study said human trafficking and murdered and missing women and girls are just symptoms of a much larger problem.
'Are they less human? I don't think so. So we have societal issues that put aboriginal women at the bottom of the heap.'
- Yvonne Boyer, Brandon University
"A number of participants believed that the trafficking of aboriginal women and girls was part of a wider 'Canadian crisis," says the May 2014 report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"This crisis was a continuum of related phenomena involving the criminal victimization of aboriginal women and girls," it says, "evident by the large numbers of aboriginal women and girls who are subjected to physical and sexual violence, are trafficked, and who go missing or are murdered."
The two issues are indeed connected, said one of the report's co-authors.
"The whole concept of what's happened to aboriginal people in this country is reflected in the murdered and missing women, and the apathy that's gone along with that as well," said Yvonne Boyer, who holds the Canada Research Chair in aboriginal health and wellness at Manitoba's Brandon University.
"Are they less human? I don't think so. So we have societal issues that put aboriginal women at the bottom of the heap."
PM refuses to hold inquiry
Calls for an inquiry intensified recently after RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson revealed that nearly 1,200 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada in the last 30 years.
Participants at a rally call for a national inquiry into the nearly 1,200 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada in the last 30 years. (Chris Rands/CBC)
Of that, Paulson says, there are 1,026 murder cases and 160 missing-persons cases, hundreds more than previously thought.
But the Conservatives have so far resisted calls for an inquiry, saying the issue has been studied enough and now is the time for action. The government's latest budget included a five-year, $25-million renewal of money aimed at stopping violence against aboriginal women and girls.
Last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women was a crime problem, not a "sociological phenomenon."
Earlier this week, however, a British Columbia judge used the sentencing of a serial killer to wade into the debate, saying it would be a "mistake" to treat the phenomenon simply as one for police to solve.
"It is a sociological issue — one that arises from, among other things, a high-risk lifestyle," said B.C. Supreme Court Justice Glen Parrett. "It is something that must be dealt with."
"It is a mistake, in my view, to limit the seriousness of this issue and to pretend, as some do, that policing is an answer when the circumstances of this case raise questions about the effectiveness of that process at times."
Distrust of police among aboriginal women
Indeed, the trafficking report found a deep distrust of the police among many aboriginal women and girls.
"The impact of the lack of trust issues with the police stems from the general mistrust of the justice system by aboriginal people, stories regarding the behaviour of individual officers who pay for sexual services or who coerce sex workers, and the inherent systemic racism perceived to be part of Canadian institutions."
Boyer and co-author Peggy Kampouris interviewed 76 people between October 2013 and this past February. They spoke to front-line police officers, social workers, experts in the field and women and girls who were victims of sexual exploitation.
Until now, they say, little was known about how family members and gangs lured or forced aboriginal women and girls into sex work.
"It's a systemic issue. That's really important to bring out — that it's the root causes that are causing this," Boyer said.
"The people themselves are not inferior in any way, shape, or form. It's the causes that have created this mess."