“Human trafficking is not something happening on distant shores”


hreya Patel made a documentary, Girl Up, about human trafficking in Toronto. Made, as in shot, edited, etc., all by herself. 

For it, she spoke to a survivor (a young girl from Scarborough); Laurie Scott, the MP who helped pass a bill combating human trafficking; and Tamara Cherry, a journalist who has been covering human trafficking stories since 2008. Shown at human trafficking conferences, Girl Up underscores the reality that human trafficking is not something happening on distant shores. Canadian girls are being trafficked by Canadians. 

Here, she shares her journey from Miss Teen Sarnia to a documentary film-maker.

“My family came to Canada  from Qatar when l was 11 years old. 

“I grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, and in my earlier years, even though I tried my hardest to fit in, I faced racism and bullying. I remember that l use to sit behind my elementary school’s wall during recess and write in my diary. Over time it  got easier and one amazing girl in my class extended her hand for friendship and there was no looking back from there. I felt accepted. 

“I use to volunteer my time with Make a Wish foundation with the southwestern chapter since l was 16. The children that I got to interact with as a wish companion, their wishes were to meet John Cena or go to Disney World. Then I got the chance to volunteer my time with the foundation in India while l was modelling full time there. The children’s wishes there were for crayons and bicycles. It was heartbreaking. I also went to the government hospitals and saw terminally ill children waiting with their parents for days on the steps of the hospital to be treated. Once they learned I was from outside the country, they asked me for help hoping that I could do something – they felt like they didn’t have a voice. I felt completely helpless. And which is when I decided to learn how to tell stories and give voice to the voiceless. I left my full-time modelling career in Asia and came back home to do my post graduation in documentary and film.

“Why this subject in particular? And what did Bill C-96 have to do with it? Well, people in first world countries don’t realize that domestic human trafficking is a big issue and lot of it is unreported. They think that it only happens in third world countries or they assume that the victim is from a lower class family or is an immigrant, which is untrue. Domestic human trafficking happens when someone you know lures and manipulates you into any kind of forced labour including sex.

“I learned that girls ages 12 to 14 are at the highest risk but it’s not restricted to that age group. Domestic human trafficking doesn’t discriminate against any age, race, gender, etc. I wish awareness of human trafficking was taught in elementary school so girls are more educated in how to spot the signs when someone is grooming and luring them.

“For South Asians, there may be a disconnect, “Our girls aren’t doing this”, but South Asian women are at high risk to get trafficked. 

“I am unsure of the exact stats, but I found out through research from South Asian Women’s Centre that forced marriages still exist here and that is a form of human trafficking, too. I found this PDF on their site which explains more about it as well as discusses signs and symptoms.

“Bill C96 is a very important bill called Saving The Girl Next Door Act. The Ontario government finally passed it in May 2017 after MP Laurie Scott’s rigorous and long-term efforts. It took time because statistics had to be presented before the extent of the problem became known and was acknowledged. The bill allows the victim or anyone who knows the victim to file a complaint against the predator and required action will be taken right away. The bill has many other aspects that can help rescue victims and turn them into survivors. This is just a start as a lot of work still needs to be done.

“When l was making it, I didn’t even realize that Girl Up had the potential to have such a huge impact on the viewers that it did. It has been showcased at 18th Filmi Film Festival and has been screened at many anti-human trafficking conferences and community screenings. I still remember one of the most heartwarming community screenings we had. It was for women who were new to Canada and have low to zero command of the English language. There were a couple of translators there but they decided to watch the documentary fully first and then translate and discuss after. I was worried that they won’t understand it but I remember watching them watch the documentary and seeing them so affected that they spoke in their language expressing sadness. They shed tears, feeling so deeply for the survivor in my film. We even got a standing ovation from some and great reviews after. 

“We’ve held panel discussions after screenings with the police services, victim services, social worker and the survivor.  

“It just goes to show that language is not a big barrier as we feel the same emotions. We all bleed the same blood and even though the survivors in my film is not the same race as them, they felt for her like she was their own daughter. I knew this documentary had the potential to educate people but now l know that it also has the potential to save lives. 

“I had hoped that people leave screenings feeling more educated and more aware of the topic and my heart still feels full thinking of that particular screening.

“I hope people do their best to discuss human trafficking with their children so no other boy or girl gets lured into this horrendous dark world again. 

“I recently walked for Toronto Fashion Week and am currently acting in a few projects, too. I am also thinking of making another documentary on human trafficking. I very recently found out that girls who come from India to Canada to study are pushed into the sex trade and they are sending money back to India. It’s shocking and scary. 

“I want to make a documentary on the same topic but from the perspective of the predator. Why they do what they do and how they lure people into forced labour is an interest of mine to explore and bring the information to the general public for more awareness.” 

Resource : Guide to Human Trafficking Systems Through Forced Marriages part B: section 1, at: <>.  

Follow Shreya Patel on Instagram and Twitter @imshreyapatel to keep up to date with her upcoming screenings and advocacy work. 

  If you’d like to share the story of your arrival in Canada, please write to desinews or call 416-695-4357.

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