Sr. IsaBelle Couillard, Talitha Kum’s North America representative, said many agencies supplying foreign workers in Canada are controlled by organized crime. Photo courtesy Sr. Couillard

Partnership ‘crucial’ in trafficking fight

  • May 16, 2024

To combat modern slavery, the fastest growing and second most profitable criminal enterprise in the world behind the illegal drug trade, anti-trafficking organizations are urgently calling for collaboration.

Angiza Nasiree, a key coordinator for St. Mary of Egypt of Refuge’s two-year respite and recovery project developed to support and empower survivors of trafficking said “building partnerships is crucial.”

“It counters the well-funded and organized nature of this criminal industry,” said Nasiree. “Collaborating (enables) organizations to pool resources, share expertise, amplify their impact and also amplify the voices of the survivors. It is also important that these partnerships are inclusive and free from discrimination and bias.”

St. Mary of Egypt Refuge, a retreat centre located in Hastings County, Ont., only began its work to help sufferers of trafficking in April 2022. Non-profits that have raised awareness about trafficking or have accompanied survivors for decades recognized the retreat centre as a new and invaluable ally in this fight. The Centre to End Human Trafficking provided advice and consultation. Covenant House Toronto co-guided a youth-centred retreat. St. John the Compassionate Mission offered expertise on how to run trauma-informed retreats. Talitha Kum, an organization of Catholic nuns established by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in 2009, invited St. Mary of Egypt leaders to participate in its anti-trafficking conferences.

From May 18-24, Talitha Kum, also known as the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, is hosting a general assembly at the Fraterna Domus in Sacrofano, Rome. Two hundred delegates from 90 countries will congregate to dialogue, discern and share ideas on how to effectively counter this global epidemic of criminality. Survivors, experts, youth, lay congregants, religious women and men will partake in this “synodal, bottom-up approach.” The theme of the assembly is “Journeying Together to End Human Trafficking: Compassion in Action for Transformation.”

Sr. Isabelle Couillard, a Sister of Charity of Montreal since 1990, is the Talitha Kum regional representative of North America. She told The Catholic Register that she intends to spotlight labour trafficking – manipulating individuals to toil against their will by using fraud, coercion or brute force – during the sessions. Compared to sexual exploitation, compelled labour receives a miniscule level of attention in the public square.  

“There are over 6,500 agencies who send people from other countries into Canada to work in our fields – imagine,” said Couillard. “The Government of Canada is not able to verify all of them and a majority are not officially registered. That is a big problem. Some agencies ask for over $1,000 for a permit to work in Canada. We have to work together to ensure we inform migrants of their rights. And with sexual abuse for prostitution, it’s the same thing. (The traffickers) take them to a country where they cannot speak the language. We find that these agencies are controlled by organized crime groups like the Russian mafia and the cartels.”

A positive recent development in the struggle against labour trafficking, said Couillard, was the visit of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on modern slavery, Professor Tomoya Obakata of Japan.

In his end-of-visit statement issued last September, Obakata shared his “view that the agricultural and low-wage streams of the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP) constitute a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery,” and “is perturbed by reports that the share of workers entering Canada through this programme is sharply on the rise.” He added that many “cannot report abuses without fear of deportation.”

Though the Special Rapporteur report was a welcome development, Couillard articulated that the Canadian public’s consciousness about trafficking and their concern for this issue needs to elevate, but she was reminded at a recent parish visit that educational work is “not always easy.”

“I was surprised,” said Couillard. “It was not easy for them to hear about it and they give a million and one excuses about why it is not that bad. It is hard for us to think that what I am eating right now for supper is human trafficking in my plate.”

Nasiree and her St. Mary of Egypt colleagues also faced tests during their respite and recovery project. In the organization’s project wrap-up report Sowing Seeds of Change: A Project Chronicle in Anti-Trafficking Endeavours for Women, the authors acknowledged “building and maintaining trust with survivors is challenging due to the deep-seated trauma, fear of retaliation and past negative experiences.” But they ultimately formulated an approach that built relational bridges.

“We embraced radical hospitality and welcomed all survivors regardless of their past experiences,” said Nasiree. “We fostered a sense of belonging and respect. Overcoming these challenges also required us to be adaptable to the survivors’ unique needs and evolving circumstances.”

The Sowing Seeds of Change report contains suggestions on how Canadian churches can join the anti-trafficking partnership. The recommendations include building relationships with law enforcement and community groups, create safe and supportive spaces and pushing for legislation that cracks down on trafficking networks.

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