Closer Than You Think

Organization Pushes for Provincial Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking in Quebec

After “servicing” up to 20 men a day, a girl is forced to hand over the thousand-plus dollars she’s just made to her trafficker. She does this six to seven days a week and is psychologically beaten and broken because of it.

If someone told you that this girl lived here in Montreal, is Québécoise, has been doing this for years and is still living this way—you would pay attention to her story. At least, Coleen Mackinnon thinks you would.

But MacKinnon says the problem is that you probably haven’t heard stories about girls like this. Or maybe you have, but likely not ones set on the streets you walk down everyday on your way to work or school—and that needs to change.

Mackinnon thinks that police forces, schools and government bodies need to listen in as well, because until the stories of these girls reach the radars of all of them, things are not going to change.

Les Affranchies

With this in mind, Mackinnon founded the Half the Sky organization in 2010, in hopes of pushing for a coordinated provincial strategy to combat human trafficking here in Quebec.

This coming Tuesday, the organization is re-launching under a new name, Les Affranchies. The new name translates to “the unchained,” and refers to hope that the organization will be able to raise enough awareness to incite action that will allow local human trafficking victims to be “freed” from their former lives.

The launch will be hosted in collaboration with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Human Trafficking Unit and will unveil the organization’s new website,

The event will feature talks from both a local human trafficking survivor and former New York Times foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sheryl WuDunn.

The goal is to raise awareness about human trafficking in Quebec, not only on a public level, but on an institutional one as well.

“I don’t think that it is for lack of goodwill or political will, but rather for lack of awareness that there isn’t more being done on this topic,” said Mackinnon. “We have representation from the Coalition Avenir Québec and the Liberal Party confirmed for the event, and are trying to ensure that we get at least one or two members of the current [Parti Québécois] government.”

Mackinnon stressed the importance of various levels of government involvement. “The most important place to raise awareness when you are talking about victims or prospective victims is in the schools—so we need the Minister of Education at the table,” she said.

MacKinnon added that many judges and prosecutors don’t fully understand the difference between prostitution and trafficking, nor do police officers.

“We have to educate the whole criminal and legal system—that’s where the Minister of Justice has to get involved,” said Mackinnon.

What We’re Dealing With

Sex trafficking is a crime against humanity. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is defined as an act involving recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving a person through use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.

Seventy-nine per cent of all human trafficking is sexual trafficking, and of those trafficked, 80 per cent are female. Other, though less common, forms of human trafficking ongoing in Quebec include both forced and domestic labour.

Mackinnon says there are a few reasons Les Affranchies has opted to narrow their focus to sex trafficking.

“We are starting there because it is the most prevalent and also the most shocking for many,” she said. “It’s the most degrading, the most dehumanizing of these forms of human trafficking, at least for some.”

The repercussions victims face as a result of sex trafficking are severe and often long-lasting.

“This girl might not be locked up at the end of the day, but she is in her own psychological prison and she has been beaten or psychologically abused or both—so she can’t get out.”

“This girl might not be locked up at the end of the day, but she is in her own psychological prison and she has been beaten or psychologically abused or both—so she can’t get out.”
—Half the Sky/Les Affranchies founder Coleen Mackinnon

So, What’s the Plan?

Meet the Palermo Protocol: the result of a 115-nation consultation completed in 2000 by the United Nations, in an attempt to outline the most effective way to combat human trafficking.

The findings can be summarized as the “three ‘P’s”: Prevention through raising awareness, ensuring victim Protection and following up with appropriate means of Prosecution.

“We want to raise awareness about this protocol, particularly amongst government ministries who need to get involved in order to implement it,” said Mackinnon.

Of over 100 countries involved in the consultation, to date, the only nations that have implemented the protocol in full are Sweden, Norway and Iceland—but Les Affranchies hopes to change that.

The organization conducted a community consultation in tandem with the RCMP’s Human Trafficking Unit to identify Quebec’s shortcomings in handling issues of human trafficking within the province.

The preliminary results of these findings were, according to Mackinnon, almost perfectly in tune with the recommendations stated in the Palermo Protocol—enforcing the fact that instating it would be an effective means of combating human trafficking in Quebec. The detailed results of the findings will be discussed during Tuesday’s launch.

The RCMP’s Human Trafficking Awareness Coordinator was unable to comment on the findings by to press time, however.

Unique Obstacles

Les Affranchies make a point to deal with the issue of human trafficking from a very Quebec-centric perspective to address the unique needs of the province.

“One of the challenges about raising awareness about human trafficking in Quebec is the lack of awareness, partly due to the lack of resources available in French.”

Mackinnon also said Montreal’s tendency towards sexual openness hasn’t exactly made things easier.

“It has led to greater demand for women to serve at shops,” she said. “We work with a police officer who referred to Montreal as the Las Vegas of the North—Las Vegas being the epicentre of trafficking in the U.S.”

She pointed out that there are 30 strip clubs on the island on Montreal, in comparison to the mere two in Vancouver’s downtown core.

Challenges aside, MacKinnon is optimistic for the province.

“There is no province in Canada that is putting in place all three measures [of the Palermo Protocol] to combat trafficking, and I think Quebec could easily be the first province to do this,” she said.

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