When the Pan American and Parapan American Games come to Toronto this summer, there is concern among some faith groups and NGOs that they will bring with them more than athletes and spectators.
The Games, which will take place from July 10 to 26 and August 7 to 15, are expected to cause a surge in human trafficking as women are brought in to meet the increased demand for the sex trade that will occur with the influx of people coming to watch or participate in the events.
While the issue of how the Games fuel human trafficking is starting to become part of the public conversation, Jennifer Lucking, who serves on the Canadian Council of Churches’ task force on human trafficking, was thinking about these issues long before the Games came onto the horizon. Lucking, who is also co-ordinator for human trafficking outreach for the Regional Synod of Canada (Reformed Church in America), is completing her MA in social justice and equity studies at Brock University, where her thesis focuses on domestic sex trafficking in Canada.
Fighting commercial sexual exploitation is a complicated business, said Lucking. Not everyone being exploited is necessarily coerced through physical violence-many enter the sex trade because of economic destitution or to feed financially crippling addictions. While there are women who choose sex work as a trade, the line between this exercise of free choice and the choice of a woman whose alternative to sex work is homelessness is not always an easy one to discern, she said.
For this reason, the project Lucking is involved with around the Pan American Games-the ecumenical initiative “Buying Sex Is Not a Sport”-is less about regulating the sex trade and more about attacking the problem at its root: the male demand that drives it.
“Our tagline is ‘Start the conversation, challenge the demand,’ ” Lucking said, adding that it can be as simple as talking about how frequenting a strip club “isn’t as innocent a behaviour as some people choose to believe.” Trafficked women are being forced to dance in strip clubs, and although no purchase of sex is involved, “there is still trafficking and exploitation going on there,” she said.
Lucking said her group hopes the Pan American Games will serve as a “platform” for drawing attention to the problem of demand. Victim services groups already active in the communities will be doing the frontline work. “We’re not coming from a place of victim services-that’s not our specialty in our current role.”
Other groups also hope the Games will be an opportunity to educate Canadians about human trafficking. The Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking, an ecumenical group with Roman Catholic roots, will be erecting an interactive installation called the “Gift Box.” It appears to be a large gift-wrapped present from the outside and on the inside contains information about human trafficking.
But aside from sexual trafficking, responses to the Games themselves have been mixed within the diocese of Toronto. While many Toronto Anglicans are excited to be hosting the Games, and some parishes, such as Little Trinity, will be actively involved in outreach, the enthusiasm is far from universal. Several members of the diocese’s social justice and advocacy committee (SJAC) have voiced concerns, not only about the surge in human trafficking that is expected to attend the Games but also about the Games themselves.
“The Games are hugely expensive for the city and other levels of government,” and they use resources that could otherwise have gone to affordable housing, emergency shelter and social services, said the Rev. Andrea Budgey, chaplain of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. “It seems that, as a society, we value the lives of our most vulnerable citizens less than a transient moment of expensive excitement.”
The Rev. Maggie Helwig, rector of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, agreed, adding that while the Games were originally estimated to cost $1.4 billion, currently they are estimated to cost at least $2.5 billion, and possibly more. A portion of this money, if redirected toward social programs, could end Toronto’s chronic shortage of affordable housing, she said.