St. James Cathedral gave Toronto a special present this summer. But it came with a twist.
During the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, a large gift box was installed on the grounds of the cathedral, located at the corner of King and Church streets, a busy downtown intersection. Although pretty on the outside, the inside of the box told a much different story. Inside were testimonies and information about human trafficking.
About 1,000 people went through the box by the time the Games ended in mid-August.
“The response has been very positive,” said Leah Watkiss, chair of the Working Group for the Safe Alliance to End Human Trafficking, one of the groups responsible for bringing the box to Toronto. “People are often shocked to learn that human trafficking is a problem here and it opens their eyes to it.”
Ms. Watkiss described human trafficking as “the recruitment or movement of a person through deception or coercion for the purpose of exploitation.” She said almost every industry has trafficked workers in it.
Visitors to the box were often shocked to learn that Ontario has the highest number of people being trafficked in the country. A recent report found 511 instances of trafficking from 2011 to 2013. Given the invisible nature of the crime, said Ms. Watkiss, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Worldwide, 30 million people are being trafficked annually, more than at any point in human history. “When you hear the stories of people who have been trafficked, you can’t help but be moved personally and feel the need to act,” she said.
The box contained harrowing stories of people who were lured to Ontario with a promise of a better life, only to end up working seven days a week with little or no pay and no way of escape. A poster in the box explained that people are bought and sold for many reasons, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, street crime, domestic servitude or for the sale of organs.
Volunteers at the box asked visitors to sign a postcard to Premier Kathleen Wynne, calling for an action plan and funding to tackle trafficking in the province. Ontario lags behind other provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, all of which have plans in place.
Visitors were also asked to watch for signs of trafficking and call the Toronto Human Trafficking Hotline at 416-597-8808 if they saw anything suspicious. Signs include a person who doesn’t have control of his or her own money; a person who doesn’t have legal documents or identification; a person who has little or no access to their earnings; or a person who is injured by being controlled or assaulted.
The first GIFT Box, as it is called, was used at the London Olympics in 2012. Since then, similar boxes have been installed in five countries, drawing 50,000 people. Toronto’s GIFT Box was the first in Canada. The box was designed by art students at OCAD University, and a local construction company donated the materials. About 100 volunteers staffed it.
“The cathedral has been fantastic,” said Ms. Watkiss in an interview in July. “We were hoping that they would give us a spot on the lawn but they’ve gone above and beyond that in terms of helping support us. They’re always there if we need anything. It’s been a real pleasure.”
She hoped the box would be used in other places after the Games. She said her group would consider using it at a church and other places of worship