Guarding Our Youth: A Candid Conversation on Canadian Human Trafficking with Sofia Friesen

Guarding Our Youth: A Candid Conversation on Canadian Human Trafficking with Sofia Friesen

by Chris Tompkins | October 5, 2023

Sofia Friesen is the Canadian Programs Manager at Ally Global Foundation, a Canadian charity that works to prevent human trafficking and assists survivors in rebuilding their lives. Sofia brings her experience working in healthcare and with international NGOs — and in researching gender-based violence when it comes to human trafficking in the context of forced migration — to her task of championing Ally’s research and program development in Canada. Sofia works tirelessly to prevent the trafficking and exploitation of Canadian youth.

Human trafficking: a Canadian issue

To start this difficult but necessary conversation, Sofia defines human trafficking for listeners.

“Human trafficking is a process that involves recruiting, transporting, holding, or exercising control over a person in order to take advantage and profit off their body,” she says on the Shaping Our World podcast.

Sofia explains that human trafficking isn’t talked about enough as it pertains to Canadian youth — with many people being surprised that it’s even an issue here in Canada. People tend to think it’s a problem elsewhere and involving victims from other parts of the world, but among the human trafficking happening in Canada, 85% of victims are Canadian citizens.

“I think it’s really important to understand that piece,” she says.

Sofia also says that among the different forms of trafficking, sex trafficking and labour trafficking are most prevalent in Canada, with sex trafficking making up the majority of cases.

Facts about sex trafficking in Canada

The rate of occurrence of sex trafficking is hard to pinpoint because it is alarmingly underreported. Police-reported incidents totalled 3,500 between 2011-2021. Data from the national hotline for trafficking, however, paints a different picture, showing that only 7% of cases reported to the hotline were reported to law enforcement.

Sex trafficking is a gender-based crime with 97% of victims in Canada being women. Sex trafficking also largely impacts youth with 25% of the victims here in Canada being under the age of 18 and the majority of victims being between the ages of 18-25. Online grooming targets children as young as 13.

In Canada, sex trafficking targets vulnerable groups including those who identify as LGBTQIA2+, children who are part of the welfare system, immigrants and refugees, and the Indigenous community. In Canada, only 4% of the population is Indigenous but they comprise 51% of the sex trafficking cases. Alarmingly, 91% of victims know their trafficker.

The technology gateway

A report from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection reported a dramatic increase (of 815%), in reports of online sexual luring for Canadian children from 2018 to 2022 and this goes hand in hand with the availability of personal technology. Sofia explains that there has been a huge shift to the online space in terms of grooming and hypothesizes that the upswing of cases is compounded by the impact of COVID-19.

“It shifted a lot of things online,” she explains. “We were already in this trend of the digital space becoming more accessible and broader and social media becoming huge. Then with COVID, it just shifted anything that was in-person into the online space.”

She points out that the isolation experienced as a result of COVID is also at play.

What does trafficking look like and what can we do about it?

Traffickers use this easy access along with their victims’ vulnerabilities, desire for connection, and even their material needs to groom them, most often online. Sofa explains that groomers use social media and online platforms to identify and meet needs such as self-esteem, belonging, popularity, fame, and money. Because of the online component, it’s much easier for groomers to reach their victims and it’s also much harder to track. Because of this, Sofia underlines the importance of prevention education and resources made for young people.

Along with their community partners, Ally is focused on “providing that prevention education [by helping] kids and teens understand what’s a red flag of somebody who’s unsafe online versus a safe person online, or what’s an unhealthy versus a healthy relationship.” Sofia stresses that this type of outreach and education is critically important because it also addresses the perpetrators. She recognizes that while we collectively have a lot of compassion for victims, it’s important to remember that the perpetrators were children once, too, and the outcome is often a result of brokenness and not having their needs met.

“That’s why we feel really strongly about engaging with kids and teens on this, because then we have the opportunity not only to prevent people from becoming victims, but also perpetrators,” Sofia says.

Check out for resources on human trafficking in Canada and to find out how you can help. Listen to the full episode at the top of this post for more on the work that Sofia Friesen is doing to protect Canadian youth.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.


[00:00:01.180] – Speaker 1

[00:00:12.440] – Speaker 2
Everyone. It’s Chris Tompkins. Welcome to the Shaping Our World podcast. In this podcast, my goal is to invite you into a conversation that will leave you more confident in understanding and inspiring the young people in your life. Each episode, we talk with leading experts and offer relevant resources to dive deeper into the world of our youth today. Today we’re diving deeper into a topic that is pretty heavy, and it’s one that I think we often think happens in different places, and is like in movies or other places, but we’re talking about something that actually affects young people in Canada, and that’s human trafficking. I know when we talk about topics like this, it can be really heavy and deep, and just a disclaimer before we get into it. I think it’s interesting to balance the notion of being aware of what’s going on and some of the deep, dark, and really scary parts of our world, and not overreacting and being deeply concerned for our kids, because statistically we are living in a safer world. But that doesn’t mean that we become oblivious or unaware of some of the things that are prevalent and happening in our world around us with young people.

[00:01:34.370] – Speaker 2
And so there’s this balance from not putting our head in the sand, but not also looking for every dark evil thing around the corner in our kid’s bedrooms. And so today we wanted to have a conversation about this topic. And in order to do that, we brought Sofia Friesen in. Sofia is the Canadian Programs Manager at Ally Global Foundation, a Canadian anti human trafficking charity. Ally’s mission is to prevent human trafficking and help survivors build healthy, independent lives working in Nepal, Cambodia, and in Canada. In this role, Sofia is responsible for championing Ally’s research and program development in Canada. She has a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, a Masters of Public Health, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Public Health with a focus on human trafficking in Canada. She has experience working in healthcare, working with a number of international NGOs, and researching issues related to gender-based violence and human trafficking in the context of forced migration. Her experiences internationally and domestically have given her the context and motivation to work tirelessly to provide resources and programming that will prevent the trafficking and exploitation of children and youth in Canada. I think you’re going to enjoy the conversation today — if you can use the word enjoy.

[00:02:59.690] – Speaker 2
I think you’re going to find it interesting and helpful, and Sofia unpacks this really difficult topic for us in a helpful way and gives us some real things to think about and to process and some other resources we can investigate. Without further ado, let’s get into the conversation with Sofia Friesen. Sofia, thanks for joining.

[00:03:28.800] – Speaker 1
Hey, Chris. Yeah, thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.

[00:03:31.460] – Speaker 2
Yeah, looking forward to this conversation. We were talking before we were recording just how important this topic is. It’s a bit nuanced. Really looking forward to having a really important conversation today. Thanks for being here.

[00:03:45.580] – Speaker 1

[00:03:46.640] – Speaker 2
Podcast is called Shaping Our World. We always want to know what has and is shaping the world of our guests. When you were growing up, when you were a kid or a teen, what shaped your world? What were the big influences in your life?

[00:03:59.970] – Speaker 1
Yeah, it’s a good question. Generally, I don’t have a very good memory, so I actually asked my husband to help me brainstorm on this. But one of the big things for me was just exposure to other parts of the world. And one key event that I feel like really shaped my world and my worldview as a teen was the first time I went to a developing country. My mom brought me as a pre-teen to Haiti because we had friends that were living there doing some humanitarian work. I think being exposed to the vast differences in the way that people lived and the opportunities or lack thereof that they had compared to where I grew up, based mainly just on chance, was really jarring for me, and I think really instilled a deep spirit for seeking justice and seeking equity and equality and all those things. I continued to engage in some global health and humanitarian things throughout the rest of my life as a big result of that. I think another big impact for me was, I think as a teenager, friends and your social circles play such a big role in your life. I had amazing friends in high school that they saw that passion in me and they stirred that on.

[00:05:19.960] – Speaker 1
We would do fundraisers together. We would do activities together. It was a cool community where we all influenced each other and really just tried to make each other better people while having a lot of fun, and certainly parents as well. But I think of those two things as being really big pieces of what shaped my world and who I am today when I was a teenager.

[00:05:44.180] – Speaker 2
Well, and we’ll hear how that continues to weave its way through some of the stuff you’re doing today, so that’s great. Tell us a little bit about yourself, what’s shaping your world today, your personal life. What do you enjoy doing? How do you spend free time or leisure time?

[00:05:57.870] – Speaker 1
I love being outside. I live in Kingston now with my husband, and we love to hike, bike, go on some trail walks. I also have recently discovered a passion for sewing, so I feel like I’m entering a bit of a grandma era early in my life, but I love sowing, I love baking, gardening, just doing some of those hands-on things. I also am a total nerd, so I’m actually still in school. I am currently a PhD student at Queens, which is also related to my work, which we’ll discuss further. But yeah, I don’t know, I love hanging out with people. We love hosting and having people over and just getting to know people in our community.

[00:06:43.020] – Speaker 2
Well, for those listeners that don’t know where Kingston is, it’s in Ontario. It’s a big university town, right? Yeah. On a nice pot of water. It’s a gorgeous little place, and so there’s lots to do out there, so I’m glad you get to take advantage of all that. You mentioned a little bit about your studies and your work. You have a background, which we talked about in the bio, as public health nurse and studying nursing and all that stuff, and now you’re doing your doctorate. Tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing now and how it even connects with the world of teenagers and young people.

[00:07:18.450] – Speaker 1
As I mentioned growing up, that passion for justice really shaped me. One of the things that I was exposed to as a teenager was the issue of human trafficking. And so since that exposure, I think it just hit me at the exact time in life where I was looking for something to put my energy towards. And once I learned about it, I didn’t really feel like there was an option not to engage or not to try to participate in some solution. So throughout my high school, university, working, master’s degree, all of that, I continued to lean into this topic and spent some time engaging with it overseas. But during my master’s degree here at Queens is when I really started to unpack what does this issue look like here in Canada? Because we know that this issue exists all over the world, but I think it’s much easier to think of it as an over there issue for us Canadians. I really started to lean in and got connected with some people who were coming out of lived experience that were survivors here in Canada and started to understand that nuance. I’ve been connected with Ally Global Foundation since the organization started about four years ago and originally was involved with the work that they are doing in Nepal.

[00:08:40.240] – Speaker 1
The founder and I had a conversation as I was wrapping up my masters, and we just started talking about the stuff in Canada. It’s always been a huge value for the organization to eventually engage in the Canadian space. I ended up joining the team last fall to really start to figure out what could meaningful engagement in Canada look like? What are the gaps related to this issue and to organisations working in this space in Canada? And how can we work alongside them and contribute to this space? The work that we do in Canada from those conversations is largely having a prevention and awareness focus. I think this hugely relates to the world of teens and young people because that’s the population that’s most at risk for something like this, which we’ll talk about a bit more later, but really working on building resources that are specifically for children and young people. We see a lot of resources out there for parents and teachers, and certainly we want to educate them as well, but also making content that young people can connect with and see themselves in and not feel judged by, and that’s not fear mongering.

[00:09:58.010] – Speaker 1
We’re working with a partner at Exploitation Education Institute to develop a huge number of resources for children, youth, and parents, and teachers, while also building on the research in Canada, as that’s hugely lacking. As I mentioned, I’m a nerd for that stuff, so that’s a personal passion.

[00:10:17.800] – Speaker 2
Well, just even listening to that, it feels strange, Sofia, to say I’m looking forward to this conversation and diving into this topic because it doesn’t feel like the right words because of what we’re talking about. But I do think it’s fascinating when you lift the stone up and see all the things that live under it. I know for me, with this topic, it wasn’t until our church got involved in some of this stuff, and even a friend of mine who was a police officer who worked in York region where I live in this area, started to tell me more and more about what’s going on that you are hit there to go, Really? I thought this was like a Eastern European, Central Asia, different parts of the world, not here necessarily in Canada. Maybe I’m unique, but I think a lot of people have that. I feel like most of us don’t realize the level of issue human trafficking is in Canada. So can you give us some information about the rate of human trafficking here in our country and tell us what human trafficking looks like when it comes to the types of humans that are trafficked and what’s going on?

[00:11:32.590] – Speaker 2
You have some info and data, I’m sure, on that that would be, I think, really interesting for our listeners to hear.

[00:11:40.250] – Speaker 1
Yeah, I’m happy to share on that. I want to affirm you’re definitely not alone. I think it’s a very new thing that people are talking about in the Canadian space. Yeah, I think it’s great that you’re interested in it. It does feel like a weird topic to be excited to learn about, but I do think it’s really important. Yeah, I think to start, human trafficking is really an umbrella term for different types of trafficking. What defines human trafficking is a process that involves recruiting, transporting, holding, or exercising control over a person in order to take advantage and profit off their body. The different types of trafficking are really based on what is being profited off of for that person. Sex trafficking would be for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Labor trafficking would be similarly for labor exploitation. There’s lots of other types, but those two, sex trafficking and labor trafficking, are really the two main ones that we see here in Canada, and likely the two most common globally as well. I think one of the big misconceptions related to trafficking is that it’s the same as human smuggling. Smuggling centers around transporting and crossing borders, whereas human trafficking doesn’t necessarily need to cross borders.

[00:13:03.160] – Speaker 1
In fact, in Canada, 85% of victims are Canadian citizens. The trafficking we’re seeing in Canada actually involves Canadian people. I think it’s important to understand that piece. Then related to the sex trafficking piece, that is the majority that we’re seeing here in Canada. There’s lots of language and lingo in this space, but two words you may hear interchangeably are sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. All sex trafficking is sexual exploitation, but not all sexual exploitation is sex trafficking. The key difference there is that profiting piece. But in terms of conceptualizing how much human trafficking is happening here in Canada, it’s a really tough question to answer. We mostly go off of police-reported incidents, which tell us that between 2011 to 2021, there were 3,500 police-reported incidents. But based on data we have from the hotline, the national hotline for trafficking, only seven % of cases reported to the Hotline were reported to law enforcement.

[00:14:15.020] – Speaker 2

[00:14:15.670] – Speaker 1
Know that this issue is significantly underreported, which makes it very hard to gauge what that true number actually is. But some numbers that we do know is that there’s been a huge rise in online luring and grooming in the last five years. A report by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection reported an 815% increase in reports of online sexual luring for Canadian children from 2018 to 2022. And of the data that we have, we know that 25% of victims of trafficking here in Canada are under the age of 18, and the majority being between 18-25. We know that this is a significant issue. We know that we’re not capturing all of it, but it does seem to be on the rise. As we’ll talk about it in a little bit here, a lot of those grooming tactics or how it’s happening in Canada has shifted to the online space, and that makes everybody at an increased vulnerability to this issue.

[00:15:20.810] – Speaker 2
Going off of what you just said, and with some statistics that I found on your website, on your resource page, it sounds from what I’m hearing and seeing that human sex trafficking in Canada predominantly affects women. 97% of the victims are female, and they’re under the age of 25. You mentioned some statistics around 18 and 18-25. What is it about this demographic that makes them vulnerable to this? Is it mainly sex trafficking that affects kids here in Canada? Talk to us a little bit about the age in females, particularly and what is it about that group?

[00:16:02.190] – Speaker 1
Yeah, it’s a great question. I think when we see that stat around women, we know that human trafficking is a gender-based crime. When it comes to sex trafficking, it has always disproportionately, far and away affected women more. I think that a lot of that is likely related to demand, thinking about that pathway. What are people being sex trafficked for? Well, it’s for sexual exploitation. What’s the demand for that? It’s often for women. It’s not a surprise, given that context that women are vastly the ones being targeted and affected by this issue. Then I think in terms of the age, unfortunately, a big part of that also is related to demand. The other side is also related to the that grooming process. Thinking about how people are groomed into becoming victims of human trafficking, there’s often this process by which traffickers will figure out what the needs are that an individual has in trying to meet those needs, creating a dependence so that that can be exploited and using coercion through that established relationship. When we think about young people, I think about myself in high school, there are so many insecurities or needs or things that you’re trying to figure out that it unfortunately makes it really easy to spot those needs and to try and meet those needs and exploit those needs.

[00:17:49.010] – Speaker 1
I think that’s why we see so much of this happening among kids, is the demand piece and also related to how grooming happens and the different vulnerabilities that kids innately have by discovering who they are and discovering what they’re supposed to do in the world. I also do think it’s important to mention that among these demographics that we see, there are other groups within that that are additionally vulnerable. That includes individuals who are indigenous. In Canada, only 4% of the population is indigenous, but they comprise 51% of the cases that we see. There’s a huge, disproportionate representation there, which is a whole other topic in and of itself. We actually have created a program specifically to partner with indigenous communities for that reason. But other vulnerability factors are relayed to those who are involved in the child welfare system, those who are experiencing precarious housing or are in alternative programs, immigrants and refugees or children of immigrants and refugees, and those who identify as LGBTQ, all of these groups have that increased vulnerability due to the precarious nature of the situations, or again, having those needs that can easily be identified and exploited.

[00:19:18.400] – Speaker 2
Yeah. I’d like to talk a little bit about that in more detail about how kids are recruited. You talked about being groomed. I think sometimes we have a really bad perception of human trafficking. Movies like taken, we think it’s like someone’s on a vacation and these really bad guys show up and grab someone into a car. While I’m sure that happens, kids are often recruited into it. How does that happen? And has the rate of trafficking? You mentioned in some statistics earlier, but talk about how the rate of trafficking has changed with the proliferation of personal technology devices and online stuff. So how are kids recruited and what does the new emerging world of social media and the internet have to do with that as well?

[00:20:11.490] – Speaker 1
Yeah, it’s a great question. And I’d love that you mentioned Taken, because that was one of my early exposures. And I think for a lot of us, it’s that touchpoint or that first interaction we’ve had with the issue. And as you mentioned, it provides a very sensationalized view of how this happens. That’s not at all to discredit the fact that in some cases it does involve kidnapping. In some cases it is that extreme, and in different parts of the world, this looks very different. However, the trends are that so much of this is more relational. The majority of people who are trafficked know their trafficker. Whether it’s a romantic interest, a family member, a friend of a family, a friend, whoever that is, I believe it’s 91% of people actually know their trafficker. Very rarely is it that stranger, kidnapping situation that we see in the media.

[00:21:14.930] – Speaker 2

[00:21:15.650] – Speaker 1
Terms of how this happens, yeah, there’s been a huge shift towards the online space. My hypothesis is also related to the impact of COVID. It shifted a lot of things online. We were already in this trend of the digital space becoming more accessible and broader and social media becoming huge. Then with COVID, it just shifted anything that was in-person into the online space.

[00:21:43.080] – Speaker 2
And created more isolation.

[00:21:44.650] – Speaker 1
As well, right? And created more isolation and those increased needs and vulnerabilities and people looking for connection. And it totally, not to sound crass, but it totally decreased the workload on the side of the trafficker or the group. Because instead of having to foster this in-person relationship and build that trust over a long period of time, all of a sudden you can use a deep fake or an image that’s not actually you, and build that relationship through these social media platforms. That’s very often what we see here in Canada, is grooming happening through social media and online platforms, using these platforms to identify and meet needs such as self-esteem, belonging, popularity, fame, money, predatory people will try to meet these needs as a lure into exploitation, and will establish that relationship online. Unfortunately, we’re in the space where it’s become much easier for people to be groomed, and it’s become much harder for us to track it. We really are, again, going back to the action items, really trying to provide that prevention education because that window has severely decreased. So trying to help kids and teens understand what’s a red flag of somebody that’s unsafe online versus a safe person online, or what’s an unhealthy versus a healthy relationship.

[00:23:14.800] – Speaker 1
And how do we engage in the online space in a healthy way? Because as we mentioned, there are those groups that are at increased vulnerability. But because things have shifted online, it’s increased that vulnerability for everybody, which I’m not a parent, but I feel like that can feel very overwhelming. So we’re really trying to engage people to talk about this issue in a way that’s not fear mongering, but really trying to talk about it directly because I think it’s gone under the radar for so long that it’s unfortunately made it very tricky to talk about.

[00:23:52.400] – Speaker 2
I think it’s easy for us to hear this stuff and go, Okay, I can see how kids are recruited. But when it comes to that idea of trafficking and being put in a situation that is really detrimental and harmful to an individual and a person, there’s this idea of, Well, if they’re not kidnapped or taken into it, why don’t they just get out of it? Totally. But as you’re talking about vulnerable populations and power and shame and the same tactics that lead someone into it, and then they’re like, Oh, this is what this is about. I mean, it’s not that easy for someone to just say, Well, I don’t want to do this anymore. Get me out of this. Totally. Can you talk a little bit about how they keep kids involved? Because that’s in my head, I’m like, Oh, well, if they’re not taken and handcuffed somewhere, why doesn’t somebody just say no more? But I know that it’s not easy to do that and to keep people in it and to keep it going, it’s just part of that whole cycle of abuse and misusing people.

[00:25:02.110] – Speaker 1
Yeah. I think the big piece really is that coercion, right? Many, many survivors of trafficking or victims of trafficking do not self-identify as being in a trafficking situation.

[00:25:19.350] – Speaker 2

[00:25:20.370] – Speaker 1
People I’ve spoken with would say, I just have a bad boyfriend. He loves me. He’s given me all these gifts. He’s shown me that he loves me, but sometimes he makes me do things I don’t want to do, but it’s my own fault. It’s because I wasn’t good. It’s acknowledging that for a lot of these people that are being sex traffic, it feels like there’s a very real relationship there because of the manipulation and the grooming process. It doesn’t appear to those people that they’re in this situation, and often they feel the responsibility and the shame of the things that they’re doing and feel like it’s their own fault. In terms of leaving a situation like that, they’re not physically handcuffed, but emotionally, they totally are. They’re deep bonds that are formed and other tactics can be used. We mainly talk about something called Romeo pimping, which is that love a romantic relationship that’s used to build these relationships. There’s other types, though, that do involve more physical violence or threats or blackmailing. We’re seeing a lot of that. There’ve been increased reports of things like sex torsion that are happening, which is actually targeting more young boys in Canada.

[00:26:45.250] – Speaker 1
I think that’s what makes it such a challenging issue to talk about in Canada, is we want to be able to visualize the perfect situation and the perfect victim, where it’s somebody who’s kidnapped and they’re held against their will, and then somebody big and strong comes in to rescue them. But it’s a much more insidious and hidden process than that, which makes it very hard to talk about it. It makes it hard to figure out how to combat the issue.

[00:27:12.760] – Speaker 2
When you were talking about physical handcuffing versus emotional, I think if we’re all pretty honest with ourselves, just knowing the human nature, emotional handcuffing is way harder to break free of, right? Totally. Because if you know something’s wrong and you’re just trying to get away from it, it’s a lot different than… We talked about the vulnerable population, and you listed some statistics. There’s so many brokenness and dislocation, and there’s so much hurt and sense of looking for belonging and love, and that it’s really easy, I would imagine, to get really tied up in it and not feel, not even really, like you said, understand what’s going on and how to get out of it. What are some signs of human trafficking when it pertains to Canadian youth in particular? What do parents or youth workers or other people, teachers even? What do you look for without going crazy with it? How do you get a sense of that maybe something this is going on in the lives of young people around us?

[00:28:22.320] – Speaker 1
Actually, before I answer that, I just want to build off one more thing you were saying earlier. Yeah, go ahead. Just related to those needs, I think one more thing that I feel really strongly about bringing up when we have conversations like this is about every person has needs.

[00:28:40.330] – Speaker 2
Of course.

[00:28:40.940] – Speaker 1
Every person desires for belonging or has very tangible needs that they have met, including the people who are perpetrators. I think it’s just an important part of the conversation to address is that it’s easy for us to have compassion when we think of, Oh, every victim and survivor was once a child, but so is every perpetrator. Every person, we all have brokenness in us and we all have needs. I think it’s important to address the fact that we can’t just engage with this issue where we think of one evil person and one helpless person, because by looking at the perpetrator as the evil person, we’re not acknowledging everything that they’ve experienced in their life that has led them to make these decisions and the needs that they are trying to get met. When we think of the victim as a helpless person, we aren’t acknowledging the incredible strength that they have and the resilience that they have to be surviving under the conditions that they are. I just wanted to touch on that as we talk about needs. I think it’s so important to enter this space with a spirit of compassion. Obviously, there’s so much evil and brokenness that’s at play.

[00:30:02.730] – Speaker 1
But that’s why we feel really strongly about engaging with kids and teens on this, is because then we have the opportunity not only to prevent people from becoming victims, but also perpetrators. Because we’re talking about those same things, those same needs, right?

[00:30:17.750] – Speaker 2
And especially when you talked about why this exists is the demand at the end of the day. And so if we’re going to really combat this, we have to take a look at that as well. And how do we address some of the dynamics in our world, the brokenness and provide, I don’t even know, opportunities for healing for everybody beyond that. Because that’s really, at the end of the day, the only way we can really stop the cycle is to make some dent in the demand side of it, which to your point, is coming from a real place of brokenness as well. And like you said, need as well. So yeah, tell us, jump back into what are some of the signs that we can look for in young people?

[00:31:07.460] – Speaker 1
Yeah, so I’ll speak to two types of signs. I think one, the signs of grooming, because I think, again, that’s the easier place to intervene because it’s earlier in that process. I’ll talk about that quickly and then the signs of trafficking. In terms of signs of grooming, there’s this acronym that somebody I work with from Exploitation Education Institute came up with called SUS. And so this is particular to the online space. And so if somebody is acting SUS, then those are your signs of grooming. So the first S in that acronym is stuff. So if somebody’s offering you stuff online like modeling opportunities or money for your photos or gifts or gaming tokens, or social media rewards, any type of gifting that’s happening online, the U is Unhealthy Age Gap. So when deception is not involved, meaning the use of a deep fake or an image, that’s not the actual person, somebody who’s more than four years older. So when we talk about the Age of grooming, we’re seeing it happen around 13 to 14. And then the age of people who are doing the grooming is more in that 18 to 24 range. So that four-year age gap is a pretty good flag.

[00:32:30.400] – Speaker 1
Then sexual, so someone is asking you for nudes or a sexual livestream within 48 hours. So again, we see the grooming process significantly condensed where the relationship is quickly built, and then there’s that immediate sexual component that’s introduced into the relationship, and then switch. So if someone is asking the individual to add them on a different social media platform like Snapchat or WhatsApp or Instagram, that can be a huge flag that somebody is seeking to lure or groom that child or teen online. And a lot of these can be really subtle. I think that for parents, it’s so important to just be having open conversations about, Hey, who are you talking to online? Looking at privacy settings on social media, looking at what types of games kids are playing with. Because on virtually every platform, there is because of how quickly things have moved and how many people exist in the online space.

[00:33:35.710] – Speaker 2
That’s a really helpful framework about giving stuff unhealthy age, sexual, and then switching. I think, again, that’s an easy thing to remember- Totally. That gives some clues as to something not right is starting to happen with these, particularly, like you said, online relationships. Then is there anything- I’m sorry. -that you can get a sense of if kids are starting to be involved in this, if it’s gone too far? Are there any signs of who might be trapped in this world?

[00:34:13.910] – Speaker 1
Yeah. Some common signs of trafficking would include a change in attitude or performance. So when talking about school, a change in grades at school or a change of engagement in regular activities like sports or distancing from friends and entering into a new circle of friends and isolating themselves from their old friend group. It can also… Other signs include being in a relationship with someone who’s older, showing up with new clothing or jewelry or gifts that appear out of character, out of that individual’s means, like they didn’t get a job, but all of a sudden they have all of these new things. Frequent sleepovers at a friend’s house can be a really good flag for parents. Just really keeping tabs on what’s actually happening there. Unexplained cuts or bruises or any bodily harm. Having a new cell phone. It would be pretty common for someone who’s trafficked to have two cell phones, so their personal one and then the one that’s given to them for the purposes of trafficking. Those would be some common signs that both parents, teachers, anybody who works with children or youth or who has children or youth can keep an eye out for.

[00:35:28.070] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s really helpful. In your foundation, you run a prevention program. What does that look like? How do you prevent kids from… Because we talked about the signs that this is going on. How can we get ahead of this and prevent kids from becoming victims of human trafficking?

[00:35:48.690] – Speaker 1
Yeah, so in terms of what we’re doing as an organization is we’re building a hub of multimedia resources that really tackle the root causes of trafficking. And the root causes of things that make anybody vulnerable to trafficking. So talking about healthy and unhealthy relationships, talking about the online space and what an unhealthy versus a healthy account is, talking about red flags. What are things that a healthy person would ask you to do versus not? How do you assert consent? And how do you assert your healthy boundaries? And how do you be a safe person to other people? So really trying to get at those root causes, because if kids and youth have a strong grasp on these things, and ultimately a strong grasp on things like self-worth, then it’s a huge protective factor. And so for parents and teachers, I think that’s such an encouraging thing to talk about, because if we can help kids and youth feel secure and really understand the type of behaviour that’s appropriate or is inappropriate, we’re empowering them to be able to flag these things themselves and to prevent themselves from getting engaged with these types of relationships online, because as soon as they see a red flag, they say, Oh, I don’t deserve that, or Oh, that’s not appropriate, and it nips it in the bud.

[00:37:17.100] – Speaker 1
So we’re really trying to develop resources to be able to do this. So we’ll be launching these resources early next year in January 2024. So definitely feel free to keep an eye out on the LAI website for that or in our newsletter we’ll be announcing it as well. And then as I mentioned, we’re also doing a program with Indigenous communities called Maquodotam. Okay. And that looks like partnering with specific communities to create culturally relevant prevention resources that’s run by the community with them. That’s another piece of the puzzle as well. But yeah, I think the biggest thing is really providing that support to our kids and youth and being the safe adults in their lives because not every child has a safe adult in their corner. Not everybody has, comes from a two-parent home or even a single-parent home that are healthy relationships. As we talked about before, sometimes family members are the ones that are facilitating some of these things. I’m really trying to come around our kids and our community of kids, that broader community of kids, to provide that support and to be those safe people and to initiate having these conversations.

[00:38:39.280] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s good. So what do we do as parents or adults if we suspect that our kids or young people we care about are potentially being involved in human trafficking? Because I know even when you try to talk to kids about anything, if we don’t… And again, I’m not putting a ton of pressure on us as parents, but kids can go dark, right? Can pull away and enter deeper into it. So the relational part is really important with this. So do you have any advice or insight into how we can bring up these conversations with kids?

[00:39:17.460] – Speaker 1
Yeah, I think that if it’s your own kid or somebody that’s in your closer circle and you are seeing some of these red flags, I think it’s often a strong approach to come with questions rather than accusations. Part of that is because part of the grooming process involves trying to create secrecy or build barriers in that child’s relationship with their family by saying, Oh, they don’t like me, or trying to create those gaps. Instead of stepping into that gap and affirming the things they’ve been told is to actually just say, Hey, are you feeling loved? Or asking questions around the behavior that you’re seeing that’s shifted and trying to get at it that way. However, if you have a strong suspicion that they are actively being trafficked and are in active danger and harm’s way, certainly that’s the time to involve police. You can also call the Canadian Hotline for support with this and how to approach it or your local victim services unit. Because I would urge there is a difference between red flags and being potentially concerned versus, no, actually, I’m quite sure something like this is happening and that there’s a deeply inappropriate, harmful relationship in my kid’s life.

[00:40:44.360] – Speaker 1
But yeah, as I mentioned, most people wouldn’t self-identify as being in these situations, so asking questions and helping the person reflect on their own situation can be a gentler way to approach the topic and help them realize the inappropriate nature of the relationship.

[00:41:02.690] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s really helpful. I think that this topic with anything, if we suspect or think something is going on as parents and people who care about young people, we can have a real rise of emotion as well, right? Yeah. That just leads us often into activity or behavior, or like you said, accusations or things that aren’t always helpful for the conversation. I’ve always learned to, as a parent or as anybody who cares about kids, to do my best to not let my own anxiety and stress and fear rise up. It’s a serious topic for sure, but if we’re not careful, we can let our own emotions run away with it. And so trying to do our best, take a deep breath, talk to people in our world that we trust to help us navigate it. And I know there’s some urgency sometimes with some of this stuff, but it’s way more important to do it right and do it well than to do it right now. I think sometimes we need to take a deep breath and think through and then approach these things a little more tactically and strategically when it comes to… Like you said, to have a caring adult in someone’s life is a huge antidote to so many of the things that ail young people in this particularly…

[00:42:29.960] – Speaker 2
And so how do we continue to be that and represent that and demonstrate that even as we tackle a tough topic like this? I think it would be really important to have in the back of our minds. Yeah, I.

[00:42:43.990] – Speaker 1
Think that’s such a great point, Chris. I also think as we talk about this, it can be easy for parents to feel the blame for things like this that happen. I don’t think that’s a helpful mindset. I don’t think we can blame parents for not monitoring enough or things like that. Certainly, there are things that parents can engage with to help provide that protective environment. But I don’t want anybody listening to this thinking, Oh, if this happened to my child, it’s my fault because I didn’t do enough because it is so insidious and it can be so subtle. Increasing that personal awareness and looking out for those red flags is really important in providing that safe space for your kids and the community of kids around you, but certainly also not getting into this mindset of shaming or blaming parents when things like this happen.

[00:43:40.770] – Speaker 2
We’ve referred to your work that you’ve done, resources, programs, and I encourage parents to check out ally. Org, A-L-L-Y. Org to get some of the stuff that we’ve talked about. Are there any other resources or places that particularly Canadian families can go to to find out more about this topic and even for us to raise awareness?

[00:44:10.540] – Speaker 1
Definitely, yeah. As I mentioned, there are some resources on our website, but we will be developing some more that we’ll launch in the new year. But other places that have really helpful resources include the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. They’re based out of Winnipeg, but their resources are applicable for Canadian families across the country. They also go by C3P, and they run CyberTip as well. You can check out that spot. Then the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, which is also just called the Centre, they also have some great resources online. I would just encourage you to poke around on those websites. There are some great resources that are already out there. There’s also a number of organizations that do things like having speakers available. The organization we partner with in BC, they do school presentations or presentations to different communities. That’s another option. If you’re involved in your local church or at camp even, or whatever it is, there could be the opportunity to invite a speaker to come in to talk about this in a more personal way.

[00:45:21.720] – Speaker 2
Yeah. You don’t need to say it, I will. If this is a topic that has raised some concern for you, we can always support organizations like yours financially as well to fund the work that people are doing, and I think get involved, raise awareness, but also support the people that are working hard at it. That’s just another way I think our listeners, myself, people can participate in helping get rid of this huge problem in our world and in our country. Yeah, that’s another way for us to get involved.

[00:46:02.640] – Speaker 1
Yeah. And also an encouragement that any amount of advocacy, whether it’s through your personal giving or how you start conversations in your circles or share things on social media, whatever that looks like, no amount of advocacy is insignificant. So yeah, certainly if this is something that you want to engage more with, I definitely encourage you to do that and to lean in in whatever way feels right for you. One way that we’ve seen individuals and churches really lean in is through an annual fundraiser we do called Move for Freedom. And it’s the type of fundraiser where everybody chooses their own activity, makes their own team, and raise fundsand we’ve seen camps, sports teams, youth groups where kids are rallying around this issue and raising thousands of dollars for this work. And it’s the work that we do here in Canada as well as in Nepal and Cambodia. And so that’s another more tangible way if you’re like, Oh, I don’t know if I can personally give or how to advocate. Well, an easy way is to get involved with that, so that can also be found on our website.

[00:47:13.980] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s great. We’re going to end our conversation a little bit differently. Often, we would talk about this at the beginning, but I wanted to finish on a positive note here. This is a heavy topic, so I wanted to ask you, what keeps you going in this line of work? Can you tell us about some positive outcomes that you’ve experienced, some encouragement that may leave us heading up rather than just feeling the weight of it all? Totally.

[00:47:43.980] – Speaker 1
No, it’s a great way to end. Yeah, it is a heavy topic, and while there’s a lot of heaviness, there’s also a lot of hope. That’s really what I feel like I cling to in the hard days, is there’s this constant dichotomy in this line of work where we see the brokenness and the despair and also the hope and the beauty and the healing. And so I’m constantly inspired by the resilience of individuals with lived experiences and the commitment of people to engage in this space. So a lot of that hope comes from individuals and watching how people engage with this. And It’s also I have so much hope for education and prevention. I think the problem seems so big and overwhelming, but it also presents a really cool opportunity to try and make a significant difference. And so I’m really trying to see the opportunities to engage people with this, the faces of kids and youth when they see content that they actually want to engage with and they say, Oh, I’ve totally been in that situation before. I didn’t realize that’s what was happening. Seeing those light bulb moments for anybody where we’re having these conversations is really significant.

[00:49:11.350] – Speaker 1
So yeah, any of those touch points with the people who are being impacted and the people who were able to reach with prevention education totally adds that layer of hope that I think at Ally keeps all of us going.

[00:49:27.530] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s great. That’s encouraging. I know it’s a bit strange, to be honest. I’m sitting in my basement in my house recording this, and it’s easy to just think about this as information. We said at the beginning to go like, Well, that happens in other parts of the world. I do think it’s been an opportunity for me even to reflect and pause and to think about how this impacts real live young people in our country today, like right now, today, and through this weekend, and to think of the tragedy of that, and I’m going to go on and do my errands for the day, and these young people are trapped in this cycle that is so detrimental and harmful. I think as human beings, it’s a good opportunity for me and our listeners to reflect on just the plight of some of our young people today and to ask the question of what can we do to continue to help and to continue to be a part of that. Thank you for doing what you do, Sofia. Really inspiring and encouraging. I wish you all the best in your team in the work you’re doing.

[00:50:43.280] – Speaker 2
I hope you continue to live out everything that you hope to do to prevent human trafficking and provide safe places for survivors to heal and to do that for more and more and more young people, particularly in our country and around the world. Thank you for doing what you’ve done and are continuing to do and for sharing some of that with us today. I know it has been a heavier topic, but one, I think it’s really important for us to be aware of and to reflect on and to maybe do something about.

[00:51:13.420] – Speaker 1
Yeah. Thanks, Chris. To everybody who’s listening for clicking on a podcast that’s talking about such a heavy topic, it really begins with conversations like these. It’s an honor to have participated in something like this.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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