Larissa Maxwell is intimately familiar with the challenges that survivors of human trafficking face as they seek to rebuild their lives. As director of the Salvation Army’s Anti-Human Trafficking Programs, she runs the Army’s Deborah’s Gate program, a residential facility based in British Columbia that helps survivors emerge from the exploitation and recover from the physical and emotional trauma they’ve suffered.

“For those of us who haven’t experienced it, we don’t understand what it’s like for someone coming out of that dark underworld that’s happening in Canada and trying to figure out, ‘how do I make a new normal?’” says Maxwell, pictured above. “There’s a lot going on for them mentally, so there’s actually a lot of steps that it takes for someone to get to a place where they’re thinking of leaving exploitation and believing that there’s a life waiting for them on the other side.”

Part of the process involves rebuilding the financial independence that was stolen from them, or that they never had a chance to build in the first place. People who have been trafficked often have little experience managing their own money, don’t know how banks work, have debts incurred by their traffickers, have a poor credit rating or none at all, and don’t qualify for student loans or other types of lending.

“You’re putting back pieces of your life,” Maxwell says. “Some of them were minors when this started. They missed huge parts of their development – financial literacy, financial experiences, the guidance of older mentors. Trafficking robs you of your financial standing.”

Deborah’s Gate joined forces with Scotiabank last year on a pilot project, called the Financial Access Project, to provide basic financial services to survivors and help them rebuild their financial independence. The project was part of a broader international initiative to mobilize the financial sector in the fight against slavery and human trafficking. Maxwell and Stuart Davis, Global Head Financial Crimes Risk Management and Group Chief Anti-Money Laundering Officer, presented the pilot initiative to the United Nations in New York City in September, outlining how the partnership was already helping survivors.

Under the pilot project, Scotiabank provided survivors with free unlimited chequing accounts for 12 months, a savings account, as well as financial literacy instruction with a specially designated advisor.

Trauma sensitivity and empowerment

Gilberto Cedolia, Senior Manager, Scotiabank’s Financial Crimes Risk Management, Executive Office, worked with Maxwell to map out a strategy for the project: how to identify suitable candidates for the pilot; determine their financial needs; and ensure the survivors were treated with the utmost sensitivity to their circumstances. They developed a framework based on the approach taken by healthcare professionals for dealing with survivors of trauma that included four pillars: informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, trauma sensitivity and empowerment.

“Ultimately, we wanted to provide that positive encouragement that would help survivors get back on their feet,” Cedolia says. “But we needed to make sure the processes were there to make it happen. We wanted to prepare the survivors so there weren’t any surprises, we had to ensure their privacy was protected so they would feel safe coming to the branch and our front-line staff needed to know how to have those conversations in the right way.”

The resulting collaboration created Canada’s first survivor referral system for financial services, with the Bank opening its first four accounts. Cedolia says the Bank hopes to transition the project from a pilot to a fully sustainable program this year, in which branches across Canada, including our Indigenous banking centres, are equipped to deliver such services to trafficking survivors. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that Indigenous women’s experiences with colonization have made them more vulnerable than non-Indigenous people to traffickers.

Human trafficking underreported in Canada

February 22 is Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Canada. Many people think of human trafficking as something that occurs in poorer parts of the world rather than in a developed country like Canada, but the unfortunate truth is that it happens all too frequently here. Accurate figures are difficult to establish because of the clandestine nature of the offence and the reluctance of victims and witnesses to come forward. In 2016, Canadian police reported 340 instances of human trafficking, according to Statistics Canada. Experts believe the crime is highly underreported.

Human trafficking consists of using people for profit, usually by forcing them to provide sexual services or forced labour against their will. While no part of the population is immune, traffickers often target vulnerable young women and teenage girls, members of our Indigenous communities and others living with economic hardships, substance abuse issues and/or other challenges. It is a highly profitable, relatively low-risk crime with devastating effects on its victims.

Maxwell said participation in the pilot project has been met with glowing reviews by the survivors.

“Their responses have been tremendous. They felt empowered, they felt important and intelligent, and felt that they could build back their economic independence,” she said. “To see them, to see the hope, is so incredibly significant.”