Listening to survivors is something Cynthia Bland has been doing and advocating for, for at least 10 years. Bland, a survivor of child sexual abuse and exploitation, knows what it is like not to have a voice. It took her more than 40 years to find hers and disclose she was sexually abused from the age of five.
“I had experienced something I couldn’t quite name, and that left me with mental health challenges and addiction, which are very common with survivors of human trafficking,” she says.
While trying to find a path to recovery, Bland realized there were few resources for survivors, and particularly adult survivors of child sexual abuse. In 2011, to help fill the gaps she saw in services, Bland launched Voice Found. The Ottawa-based survivor-led charity supports the healing and recovery of individuals and communities from the health, financial and emotional impacts of sexual exploitation.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t understand what the issue is, so I wanted to make sure we were educating people — talking a lot more about it instead of keeping that silence,” Bland says.
Voice Found is one of two non-government organizations (NGO) in Ontario that recently joined Scotiabank’s Financial Access Program, the other being Covenant House, a Toronto-based charity that works to meet the diverse and complex needs of youth living on the streets. Partnerships are also being explored in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
The Financial Access Program, which was piloted with The Salvation Army Illuminate (formerly Salvation Army Anti-Human Trafficking Services) in 2019, was established with the goal of partnering with NGOs across Canada to create a referral system, linking survivors of human trafficking to financial services to help them rebuild their financial independence. Those referred to the program are provided with a free chequing account for 12 months, a savings account, financial literacy instruction with a specially designated advisor and the option to get an unsecured credit card up to a limit of $1,000 with no annual fee.
“Our valued partnerships with NGOs across Canada enable us to train staff at local branches on human trafficking awareness and trauma sensitivity. Once staff are trained, we then have resources in place to serve the unique needs of our communities,” says Stuart Davis, Scotiabank’s Executive Vice President, Financial Crimes Risk Management and Group Chief AML Officer.
Photo: Cynthia Bland, Founder of Ottawa-based charity Voice Found.
The specially developed human trafficking awareness and sensitivity training given to Scotiabank branch staff that are chosen to work with survivors is an aspect of the program its NGO partners particularly like. The training is part of a survivor-centered approach to setting up banking, which takes trauma-related sensitivities into account, facilitating better conversations between survivor and financial advisor. First appointments include an overview of newly opened accounts and financial literacy instruction, ranging from budgeting to protection from fraud, as well as discussing future financial needs.
For some survivors, who were exploited as teenagers, the Financial Access Program could be their first time obtaining financial services. For others, it allows them to re-establish their financial identities which might have been compromised during exploitation.
Traffickers take control of their victims’ bank accounts, identification and credit, and in some cases rack up debt in the victims’ name, maxing out credit cards and lines of credit, Voice Found’s Bland says. “Without specially trained staff, going into a branch and trying to open an account with the disruption in their credit history exposed can be very painful,” she says. At the same time, she adds, it’s important for survivors to know their privacy is being protected.
“In offering these services, it has become incredibly evident that economic abuse is a core function and outcome of human trafficking, and one of the most challenging areas to recover for those affected. It is the reason for startling percentages of recidivism back to traffickers,” says Larissa Maxwell, Director of the Salvation Army’s Anti-Human Trafficking Programs. Maxwell runs the Army’s Deborah’s Gate program, a live-in facility based in British Columbia for survivors of sex and labour trafficking.
In offering these services, it has become incredibly evident that economic abuse is a core function and outcome of human trafficking ... It is the reason for startling percentages of recidivism back to traffickers.”
— Larissa Maxwell, Salvation Army's Director of Anti-Human Trafficking Programs
Lessening the chances survivors will return to their traffickers is also a reason why Voice Found advocates for and tries to offer meaningful employment to survivors. Having people on the team who have lived experience also makes a difference for those in the process of getting free of their traffickers, Bland says, adding that young women often are trafficked by somebody who has betrayed their trust, someone posing as a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and building back trust is difficult.
To mark UN World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Scotiabank has stepped up its fight against human trafficking and online child sexual exploitation, with support for three organizations that are facilitating crucial information sharing and combatting the growing proliferation of child sexual abuse material, including a donation to Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s Project Arachnid, a tool used to search out child sexual abuse material on the internet.
In announcing the campaign theme “Victims’ Voices Lead the Way” for UN World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said: “Many victims of human trafficking have experienced ignorance or misunderstanding in their attempts to get help.… Some have faced revictimization and punishment for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers. Others have been subjected to stigmatization or received inadequate support.”
While Canadians often think human trafficking happens somewhere far away, that is far from the truth. According to Public Safety Canada, those most at risk of being trafficked in Canada are women and girls, who account for 97% of victims of sex trafficking in police-reported incidents in 2018 and are often from the most vulnerable segments of our society — Indigenous, new immigrants, children in the child welfare system, persons living with disabilities, LGBTQ2 persons, and those struggling socially and/or financially. Nearly half of victims in reported incidents were between the ages of 18 and 24.