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'My parents had no idea': Sex trafficking survivor shares her story

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Warning: This article contains a graphic image and details that may be disturbing to some.

Research has shown that sex trafficking is rampant. For Canadians reading this story this means that within one kilometre from where you’re presently located, a young person is being lured into sex trafficking.

In urban centres and rural communities across Canada, children, teenagers and young adults are being sold for sex at an alarming rate. According to statistics Canada, one in four victims of human trafficking are children and youth - while 24 per cent of victims are under the age of 18.

Nicole, who asked that we only use her first name, grew up in rural Manitoba in a loving supportive home.

Sitting down with CTV National News, Nicole admits: “I never would have thought this would have happened to me. My parents had no idea this was happening to me.”

Traffickers often prey on a victim’s vulnerability. Nicole was attacked by a dog as a child. While her physical injuries healed, her face was left with some scarring which subsequently led to her growing up feeling self-conscious of her appearance. That is, until she met an older man through a friend who made her feel valued.

“He was wonderful, definitely a Romeo in a lot of ways. Spoiling you with attention and gifts.”

Recounting the early days of their relationship, Nicole shares that initially she felt like she was living in a fairy tale, “like Prince Charming riding in on a white horse.”

Feb. 22 marks National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Canada. More than a decade ago, former conservative MP Joy Smith championed legislation that ultimately strengthened sentencing for traffickers operating in and outside of Canada. She then created the Joy Smith Foundation, a non-profit that works to create awareness and education around human trafficking.

Now the foundation’s president and CEO, Smith’s daughter, Janet Campbell, tells CTV News: “Trafficking is a real growing crisis in communities’ right across our country. It’s extremely prevalent, often times playing out right in front of people and they don't recognize that it’s happening.”

It’s also a lucrative illegal business. A sex trafficker makes an average of $280,000 per year off a single victim in Canada.

For Nicole, her trafficker moved her to Toronto, away from the safety-net of friends and family. He began verbally abusing her, then it turned physical. Like the time she had a lit cigar put out on her arm.

Nicole says her trafficker told her he was going to marry her and the money they were making was to buy a house and start a new life together. Under his instruction she began working at a strip club. Next she was instructed to go out for dinner with men. Eventually she was then told to do much more.

“I would go on these dates with these business men and they would pay to sit with me and talk with me and as soon as I got in the car I would have to hand over the money to my trafficker,” she says, going on to reveal, “It got to the point where I was exchanging sexual services for money.”

If she threatened to run away, her trafficker would threaten to harm her parents. As she recounts this threat, Nicole takes a deep breath,

“If I ever stepped out of line he was going to go to my parent’s house, board it up and light it on fire with them inside and make me watch.”

For two years Nicole lived in this cycle of abuse, sexual exploitation and assault. It wasn’t until she became pregnant and called her parents that she was rescued and able to get out for good.

Looking skyward with tears in her eyes, Nicole shares that for her,

“It was the emotional aspect that was the hardest. You know bruises heal, sometimes they leave scars, but the emotional pain of somebody horribly mistreating you is something that leaves deep internal scars that are really hard to heal.”

In an effort to distribute some of her hard earned knowledge Campbell notes that, “Often times this (trafficking) starts with a new romantic interest entering a young person’s life. The process of grooming a victim begins with showering them with gifts. As they begin this process, they (the victims) change their attitude, how they dress - their grades begin to drop. All of these things are easy to shrug off as just a teenage phase, but what we want is for parents to pay attention to these changes and keep the lines of communication open.”

Campbell is pleading with parents to learn about the signs and engage in their own research on websites like the Joy Smith Foundation in order to educate themselves.

Part of Nicole’s healing process - as difficult as it can be - is sharing her lived experience. She co-hosts a podcast called “Luma and Bloom” to help empower and enlighten others. Now a mother of four and a Sunday school teacher, Nicole is adamant that her darkest days don’t define her life now, but she wants to help others any way she can.

“I hope that if anyone is watching this and struggling with the fact that they may have been or are a victim, where they feel stuck and trapped, please reach out to the Joy Smith Foundation for help. I really hope we can reach the people who need to be reached with this message.”

Before leaving our interview Nicole reflects one last time on her own experience adding, “there’s hope, there’s always hope.”

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