The secret world of Canadian micro-brothels

By: Anna Holtby
Canada’s many small towns are home to the century old church steeple, the bustling community center, the welcoming family-owned restaurant — and surprisingly, the micro-brothel.

An entrance to a brothel in London, England. Photo By Cory Doctorow [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


An entrance to a brothel in London, England. Photo By Cory Doctorow [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

An entrance to a brothel in London, England. Photo By Cory Doctorow [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Canada’s many small towns are home to the century old church steeple, the bustling community center, the welcoming family-owned restaurant — and surprisingly, the micro-brothel.

A micro-brothel is usually a series of rooms in a home, an apartment or a hotel that are used for human trafficking. Inside, girls, women and sometimes boys are forced to perform sexual acts for clients. The small rooms of the micro-brothel confine the victims, and provide only the basic necessities of “business.”

Victims of sex trafficking are controlled  — physically, emotionally, and mentally. As a result, they are not able to move around freely or escape their current situation.

In Canada, organized crime rings often make use of a network of micro-brothels across the country. Though foreign individuals are often illegally brought into Canada for the sex trade, traffickers will also use manipulative tactics to attract and exploit Canadian citizens.

Christina Harrison Baird is the chairperson and one of the founding members of the Ottawa division of Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans, an organization that works alongside other groups to promote the dignity and protection of human trafficking victims.

“Canadians believe that sex trafficking happens elsewhere or that it happens to foreigners if it happens at all in Canada,” says Harrison Baird. “Trafficking is happening in Canada. Canada is a source country, a transit country and a country of destination for trafficked people.”

Helen Roos is the coordinator of the Train the Trainer program with the Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking. The Coalition is a group of organizations that work together to raise public awareness of human trafficking and care for victims of the crime.

Roos explains that micro-brothels often flourish in rural towns to avoid the eyes of citizens and law enforcement.

As you walk through your neighborhood, stay a night in a cheap hotel or buy a new apartment, the closed door a few steps away could be hiding the world of domestic human trafficking. Human trafficking in Canada most often takes the form of sexual exploitation, as individuals, usually females aged 14-30, are both physically and psychologically abused as they’re forced to perform sexual acts.

A young girl waits in a dark room, sitting on a bed, one of the only pieces of furniture in her small prison. Condoms lie in close reach as basic maintenance designed to keep her prepared for the next customer to walk through the revolving door.

The series of micro-brothels across the country are largely controlled by organized crime through street gangs and mafia says Roos, though some pimps work as individual “entrepreneurs.”

“The proceeds from a prostituted girl can be upwards of $250,000 to $300,000 per year,” she adds, making human trafficking a lucrative business.

In 2010, University of British Colombia law professor Benjamin Perrin published Invisible Chains, a book detailing human trafficking crimes in Canada. He told the CBC that almost 80 per cent of trafficked children in Manitoba are being held inside micro-brothels.

Organizers behind the micro-brothel networks use manipulative tactics and grooming processes to attract girls from all socio-economic levels and backgrounds.

“The average person is not necessarily touched by human trafficking or they don’t believe that they will be. It’s not something that they lay awake thinking about,” says Harrison Baird. “I think that first of all what people need to know is that it could actually happen to them, or to their daughter, or to their niece, or even their nephew.”

Ottawa police inspector Uday Jaswal has seen the different ways in which Canadian females are lured into human trafficking, and says the motivation for young women is often rooted in a need for love and attention.  Girls can be recruited online, through schools and even friends.

The traffickers pick some vulnerability to prey on, usually self-confidence issues or distance from support systems like friends and family, explains Harrison Baird.

“The recruitment process is not violent at the beginning. It is flattering, it pretends to be gentle, and it pretends to be loving so the person expresses to the victim that they care for them,” says Harrison Baird.

When young women come out of the world of human trafficking they often have trouble identifying as a victim, as the manipulation of the trafficker leads to a very deep fear.

“They have to self-identify and come to the point and the position that they are ready to leave,” says Roos.

Conservative MP Joy Smith is a prominent voice against human trafficking in Canada, and works to ensure that when a victim does choose to charge her abuser that the process is as streamlined as possible.

Parliament passed two of Smith’s private member bills in 2010 and 2012, changing the criminal code to include easier identification and sentencing of human traffickers, and longer prison sentences for those who traffic minors.

“Traffickers need to know that Canada will not accept the exploitation and sale of our children and any attempts to do so will be met with stiff consequences,” said Smith in a news release.

These changes over the past two years are backed by a steady rise in organizations combatting domestic human trafficking and bringing awareness to the issue in a Canadian context.

Harrison Baird recalls when PACT-Ottawa, a non-profit and non-denominational group, was first taking root in the city. “We started in 2004 and at that time when I said ‘human trafficking’ people’s eyes glazed over, they had no idea what I was talking about.”

Before 2005, human trafficking was not written into the Canadian criminal code as an offence.

Police are also taking steps to better understand and recognize human trafficking, as front-line officers are getting trained to recognize human trafficking in the city. Still, the target group for traffickers, teen girls, are not being directly educated through schools about the tactics of human traffickers in Canada.

“As with any kind of social topic, some parents and school boards think it’s too sensitive. They don’t know how to manage it, it raises things that they’re not comfortable with,” says Roos.

As the micro-brothel hides in Canadian society, the public and hospitality industry must also be educated to recognize human trafficking. Inspector Jaswal says the assistance of a hotel’s staff led to the discovery and rescue of a woman being trafficked in one of their hotel rooms. Yet, he says he’s also seen management turn a blind eye and almost facilitate a micro-brothel on their premises.

Education and training of the public to recognize human trafficking and micro-brothels is a “two-edged sword,” says Roos. Victims will bravely come out as the public becomes more aware of human trafficking, but the resources to properly protect and help the victims are not yet developed.

“The supports and foundation has to be set first or nobody’s going to be able to support the victim in the end,” says Roos.

1 Comment on The secret world of Canadian micro-brothels

  1. Commentor // April 28, 2013 at 2:34 am //

    One reason people’s “eyes glaze over” is that the term ‘human trafficking’ is distorted to the point where it loses credibility, by applying it not just to genuine victims of it, but to all sex workers as well.

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