Brownstein: Montreal director tackles sex trafficking in harrowing CBC documentary

“There are hundreds and hundreds of victims across the country,” Viveka Melki says of young people being used as commodities by traffickers.

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Montreal filmmaker Viveka Melki doesn’t shock easily, certainly not after depicting the horrors Canadian soldiers endured in Hong Kong during the Second World War in her 2020 documentary The Fence. But Melki found herself shocked again in undertaking her latest doc, Trafficked Voices, in which she focuses on sex trafficking in Canada.

Frank and frightening, Trafficked Voices premières Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBC’s The Passionate Eye and will then stream on CBC Gem.

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Although Melki and most others may have assumed that trafficked women and men in Canada mostly come from outside the country, the stark reality is that 93 per cent are in fact Canadians. The vast majority are women from all walks and cultural backgrounds and frequently as young as 14.

Melki recounts the experiences of three women who managed to extricate themselves from that world. One of them, Augusta, tells a cautionary and harrowing story of how she became so ensnared and now wonders why:

“How the f— did that happen? I had no idea. My mother brought me up so well.”

Augusta, while admitting to being psychologically dependent on her trafficker at first, describes her situation and that of so many others as being caught up in “a modern-day form of slavery.”

“I’m not a person. I’m a commodity, written off as expense on my john’s credit card,” Augusta reveals.

A profitable commodity at that. Richard Dunwoody, a financial advocate for victims of human trafficking, estimates that traffickers make up to $300,000 a year per victim, while their victims rarely come away with anything. It’s a highly functioning business model for the traffickers and one where there is no empathy whatsoever for the victims.

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Jeannie, an Indigenous survivor, recalls being kidnapped from a party at 14, then being kept captive in Montreal and later being shopped around the Great Lakes on cargo ships before making a daring escape.

Brenda shares the story of her Indigenous daughter who, at 16, went to meet a friend in Toronto to go shopping but didn’t come back. There were no alarm bells at first, until she saw a photo of her daughter “for sale” on a website. Her daughter made it out, but the experience left her “here but gone in spirit.”

Melki came to many conclusions in making this documentary, but one stood out.

“I think ‘young person’ is the key here,” Melki says. “Vulnerability is part of being a teenager.”

She can’t comprehend this level of heartlessness imposed on teen victims.

“In The Fence, we also talk about the dehumanization of people and how does that actually happen. But even at the end of this project, I’m still wondering how this could possibly happen to someone. That’s what makes me human. That’s why I decided to go with the commodity approach. If you can dehumanize someone to that point, then that’s part of the reason you can do this.

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“But it’s also very important to say this is nothing new. Unfortunately, it’s been around for a very long time here. I don’t put all the blame on social media for the situation now, but it has resulted in a huge gain.”

The project took three years for Melki to complete, mostly at the height of the pandemic. No small task, either, for her to get these women to come forward and appear on camera. She attributes her success here to her “ethical storytelling” approach.

“Ethical storytelling means you support the people you are filming, beyond our interviews of their stories. We worked with these survivors through their process. We had therapy support for them after the filming. We understood we were triggering them by telling their stories. All of that had to be taken into account.

“So when we talk about consent, I had consent from survivors on the project every six months, because people are growing and healing and are going to change. It is rare to have stories like these on camera.”

Though her roots are Lebanese and Brazilian, Melki was born and raised in the Gambia in Western Africa and educated in England before moving to Vancouver. She has been based in Montreal since 2004.

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Melki doesn’t name traffickers here, but not out of fear of retribution.

“I’m going to say something really disturbing: Those traffickers don’t matter as much, because they’re done with the victims we portray here. The traffickers don’t really care about the ones who are gone. We’re not really interested in them, either. Their interest now is in the many new young people coming into the market. There is so much access to these people. It’s those currently in the market who are our concern. And there are hundreds and hundreds of victims across the country.

“After working on this for so long, I really feel prevention is the key. You have to inform families and young people to understand that there is a predator market out there seeking an access to a type of vulnerability, and these predators are very good at it on the level of luring and grooming. There’s no money in it for the victims, but in the end, it’s about shelter, about food on the table. As poverty rates soar, as homelessness goes up, it all becomes linked. It’s really society that’s breeding this.”

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