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.
RELATED: 25% of Canada’s human trafficking victims are minors: Statistics CanadaPeople 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
“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.
The trafficking trapAt 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 exploitationSurvivor 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.”RELATED: 4 in 10 young Canadians have sent a sext, report saysMcIvor 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
“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.
RELATED: Vancouver man sentenced to more than 10 years for pimping nine girlsCumby 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 resourcesMcIvor 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’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.READ MORE: WRHA investigating after woman found dead after leaving Seven Oaks hospitalDetox 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 1-866-345-9241Visit the Department of Justice’s Victim Services Directory or find your local Canadian Mental Health Association office to find support services near you.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.