Debbie Cumby’s eyes tell a story of strength.
As a survivor of sexual exploitation and human trafficking in Canada, she is sharing her experience to help others.
“Nobody chooses this lifestyle, and being in it for so long, it becomes a choiceless choice, it’s survival living, it’s … living day by day,” Cumby said.
Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, control, direction or influence of a person to exploit them, usually sexually.
Sexual exploitation is the most common form human trafficking, according to a United Nations report. It’s the exchange of sex for food, shelter, drugs, alcohol, money or approval.
While a majority of sexually exploited victims are girls and women, Cumby wants people to realize anyone can be affected.
”Exploitation doesn’t care what race colour or creed you are. All it cares about is if it can get you.”
“I was a 12-year-old kid, I was a chronic runaway,” Cumby said. “I never felt that I got what I needed at home and I looked for it elsewhere.”
She started doing break and enters, met the wrong people, then ended up in the Edmonton Young Offender Centre. That’s where she learned everything she needed to know to work on the streets.
“When I got out of the youth centre, I had met girls that had already had pimps. They were already addicted to drugs, and they were people that I knew out on the street now, so they were my peers,” Cumby said.
”I pulled my first trick when I was 13 years old.”
A National Task Force report on sex trafficking of girls and women in Canada shows the average age of recruitment is 13 to 14 years old. Traffickers are often referred to as boyfriends instead of pimps.
RCMP data shows a majority of traffickers in Canada are men of various ethnicities or races, between the ages of 19 and 32.
Traffickers can reap large profits from exploiting children. Sources tell Global News they can earn, on average, $300,000 each year, per victim, and often more money the younger the victim is.
People can earn between $500 and $1,000 daily by providing sexual services, an RCMP report shows. Investigations have revealed they can make up to $2,000 in one day.
Traffickers usually keep all of the money, although some people are allowed to keep a portion of what they earned.
As a teenager, Cumby worked for a man whom she thought was her boyfriend.
“I thought he was going to take care of me. I thought he loved me and I gave him all my money. He would take me shopping, and put me in a hotel room, put me out to work.”
LISTEN: Survivor explains how traffickers groom, then trap victims
Recruitment and grooming
In Canada, human trafficking usually takes place in large urban centres for the purpose of sexual exploitation and involves recruitment, according to a government report.
“Our predators, they’ll see a youth with dirtier shoes or last year’s shoes and they can pick them out of a crowd. They’re very good at what they do,” Cumby said.
The scary part is when children turn to a predator instead of their family or peers, Cumby said.
“Eventually the drugs come along, and if the drugs don’t come along the sexual assaults are going to come along because once he has you, he’s going to beat you down,” she said, adding, “predators aren’t just males, they’re females as well.”
Cumby can recall a time when she was taken to West Edmonton Mall to recruit girls, while her “friends” watched from a distance.
“I was so uncomfortable doing it, I told that girl to slap me across the face because I knew I was being watched, and I knew I was supposed to try to get other girls,” Cumby explained.
“I said, ‘It’s going to save your life. You don’t want to come with us. Just slap me in the face and walk away.’”
RELATED: Teenage girl charged in recruitment of Toronto high school student into sex trade
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP) wants people to be aware of grooming techniques that are used to access and control potential child victims.
The goal of grooming is to win a child’s trust and co-operation, which decreases the chances of them telling anyone about the abuse.
“It could be a good looking 21-year-old man hitting on some 15-year-old girl and he’s got a car, and he’s got money to take her out to eat. … That’s grooming right there,” Cumby said. “No 21-year-old should be with a 15-year-old.”
“He might take her to parties, introduce her to other males. She might get a little too intoxicated, she might get drugged, and the next thing you know, she’s in a room and people are taking their turn with her. And then that guy’s, like, ‘Oh, well, do you want your Mom to know what you were doing last night?’ They’ll use that against you.”
“Of course nobody wants their Mom to know that they were just sexually assaulted by eight men while they were drugged in a bed. And even though it’s not her fault … she feels like she might be to blame,” Cumby said.
At one point, the man Cumby thought was her boyfriend promised her a new life.
“He took me away from Alberta, told my Dad he was going to look after me,” Cumby said.
“We jumped on a Greyhound and we went to Vancouver to start a new life. No more drugs, no more working the streets.”
What happened next was not at all what she was promised. The physical abuse began. Cumby said every time she ran away from her trafficker, he would find her, hurt her, and take her to another province where she was forced to work.
”We would come to Winnipeg, and then we went to Toronto, and then back to Vancouver, and then back to Edmonton, and then back here in Winnipeg.”
“I just thought back then, it was adventures, it was going to other cities… I never really thought it would last half my life, and that’s why I do the work I do, because I know there is hope out there. I know there’s support out there,” Cumby said.
Online sexual exploitation
Survivor of sexual exploitation and human trafficking Alaya McIvor wants people to know that social media is a breeding ground for trafficking.
She herself was one of many children targeted online. “When I was being groomed and being victimized, back then, I was 12 years old,” McIvor said.
“It was MSN messenger back then that I was being groomed on, and Yahoo chat sites,” McIvor said. “Today it’s Facebook messenger, … it’s Snapchat.”
“Snapchat is one of the biggest places where they’re hanging out now, the perpetrators, the traffickers.”
McIvor is warning social media users to be more careful about what they post and share with their so-called friends online.
LISTEN: Survivor alerts people about the dangers of sharing certain photos on social media
“They’re actually putting themselves in a risky situation by posting risky pictures for trophy likes,” she said. They don’t understand the potential this puts them in to become victims, and the trauma that can follow, she said.
“You can become a victim at any point in time, day or night, to this crime in Canada.”
Since sexual exploitation is a hidden crime, McIvor wants communities to be more vigilant of their surroundings and mindful of their neighbours.
“It could happen to your next door neighbour, and it could be occurring in your next door neighbour’s house,” McIvor said.
She now educates students in Canadian schools so they can recognize signs of grooming that could lead to trafficking.
A few examples, McIvor notes, are what she calls love bombing tactics: manipulation and gifts no child can afford to buy.
“I am no longer a victim. … I am a warrior,” McIvor said. “It’s us, as educators, who are educating the broader community, … those who don’t realize that they could be a victim to this.”
McIvor and Cumby want people to realize there is nothing glamorous about working in the sex trade on the streets or online.
“A lot of youth think they’re safer by doing it online because they’re hidden,” Cumby said. ”You’re going to somebody’s place, or somebody’s coming to your place, you don’t know who they are. … It could be a really, really bad date.”
“We have a lot of women that are just simply gone and with the online stuff, it’s so much harder to find them on there.”
Traffickers who force their victims to provide sexual services in hotels or private residences mainly find clients through online advertising, according to an RCMP report.
“You don’t even have to be on back pages. You can just be on Facebook and you know, predators will message young kids, they’ll send them pics,” Cumby said.
Studies show Canadian men who buy sex are mainly Caucasian, married or in common-law relationships, educated, employed, and middle-class.
Cumby has noticed online exploitation numbers increase significantly during major sporting events, such as the Grey Cup.
“I would watch the pages during those times and keep track of the numbers and it was astronomical. When you look at them on a normal night, we might have 30 ads, and when you look at them on a night when we have Grey Cup, we might have 250 ads,” Cumby said.
Outreach and resources
McIvor and Cumby encourage anyone who feels they are in trouble to reach out for help in a place that feels safe.
“Building a relationship is key with a community partner,” McIvor said. You can walk into a community organization and ask to speak with someone, she said, adding that if you do, make sure you ask if it’s a safe place.
“When you feel your comfort is safety, express yourself, … seek that help that you’re seeking.”
For more than a decade, Cumby has worked with community organization Ndinawe, doing outreach on the streets of Winnipeg.
LISTEN: Survivor explains importance of outreach teams with lived experience
“We drive around all night just handing out kits, talking to women, talking to young girls,” Cumby said. “We were able to connect some girls with the right resources.”
The safety kits Cumby and her teammate hand out include condoms, packs of lubrication, hand sanitizer wipes, chapstick, protein bars, sandwiches, juice boxes and water bottles.
PHOTO GALLERY: What safety kits look like
All of this comes with a list of resources, supports, hotlines and the outreach team’s contact numbers.
“When these ladies and young women see us out there, I let them know I was in their shoes,” Cumby said.
“We’ll drive girls home who have been out there for days and are frozen. … We’ll take them to a place of safety, whether it be their home or one of their shelters.”
A report shows police and service providers across Canada said the scarcity of detox beds was stopping girls and women from leaving exploitation.
“Sometimes the waiting list can be so long, and sometimes two days can be too long for someone to get into detox. It could be a matter of them, you know, possibly OD’ing that night,” Cumby said.
Detox beds are something Cumby and McIvor believe cities like Winnipeg need more of to help sexually exploited children and adults.
“There’s not enough beds, there’s always another child needing another bed,” Cumby said.
”We’ve lost a lot of our sisters due to addictions, due to the streets, due to violence, due to murders, and we need to keep ourselves safe. We need to keep each other safe.”
“We’ve got to realize that we are not victims, we’re survivors,” Cumby said.
If you need help right now call 9-1-1, or Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868, an anonymous and confidential counselling service. If you’re in Manitoba, text “connect” to 686868 to be connected with a crisis responder.
This Human Trafficking Hotline (toll-free) 1-844-333-2211 provides 24/7 support and counselling to anyone being trafficked or affected by trafficking.
If you know of a child that is being harmed or neglected, call the 24-hour emergency child welfare number at 1-866-345-9241
Contact the Canadian Centre for Child Protection for help finding the proper support services in your area.
The SAFoundation supports women and children who have been affected by human trafficking and exploitation. Call them toll free at 1-866-876-6SAF.