The Blood Tribe Police Service has created a human trafficking co-ordinator position, the first of its kind for Indigenous policing services in the country.
Police announced the new role on May 5, the National Day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited People.
Senior Const. Jennaye Norris is the first officer to take on the role. She realized the need for a dedicated position when information on human trafficking kept coming up during illicit drug investigations.
“It’s happening, unfortunately, daily,” Norris said. “At that time, I didn’t know what to do with it. We would put it in the intelligence reports, but no one was specifically trained on human trafficking.”
She brought the idea of creating a position specifically around human trafficking to Blood Tribe Police Service Chief Brice Iron Shirt in January. The first step was a trip to Ottawa, where Norris could complete a two-week training course through the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.
“It was literally a no-brainer. While we were in the meeting, he was already signing me up for the course,” she said. “The support has been huge for me.”
Through the course, Norris gained the tools and techniques needed to investigate cases of human trafficking, how to recognize the signs of human trafficking, and how to help victims escape and recover.
There is a lack of understanding of what human trafficking is, which makes cases challenging to investigate, Norris said. One of her roles in the position is training others in the detachment and the community on how to recognize signs related to trafficking.
“Human trafficking happens everywhere,” she said.
Human trafficking can start looking like a typical relationship, she explained. The victim is groomed into believing their partner cares about them with promises of a great life.
Once the person is brainwashed, the trafficker forces the person to work for them, gradually taking away all control they had over their own lives. These changes can be subtle to the point where the victim doesn’t realize they are being exploited.
“I’ve talked to victim-survivors, and a lot of the time they didn’t even know they were being trafficked,” she said. “People perceive human trafficking as being this extravagant thing, not a situation where they believe they’re just working with their boyfriend.”
The first goal of the new initiative is to make sure victims are safe with wraparound services, Norris said — resources for dealing with the trauma, reconnecting with Indigenous culture through elders in the community, and finding a safe place to stay.
“If the victim is safe and they’ve exited out of the human trafficking lifestyle, that is a huge win for us.”
When Iron Shirt became police chief in January, he said he wanted to incorporate recommendations from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls into policing policy. Norris’ proposal was a perfect fit.
“We need this, we absolutely need this position here. I told her, whatever sources of funding we have, we’ll give it to you,” Iron Shirt said.
In 2019, police services reported 511 human trafficking incidents in Canada, including 31 in Alberta.
The Blood Tribe Police Service is funded on a year-to-year basis by the province and federal governments, which limits the detachment’s ability to create new positions, Iron Shirt said.
Right now, Norris is working on the human trafficking project as a volunteer in addition to her full-time position with the force.
“As it stands, we’re at least 30 per cent underfunded compared to a regular municipal police service in Alberta,” he said. “We constantly have to work around things being an Indigenous police service.”
However, he said there is hope that a new agreement between the province and police service will change that next year.
“Moving forward, we’re looking at long-term funding now and negotiating a better tripartite agreement for next April. Her position will be in that agreement.”
Additionally, there’s an opportunity to collect a database around MMIWG2S and human trafficking for other Indigenous policing services through the program, Iron Shirt said.
“Once she collects enough, we’re going to send her to the First Nations Chief of Police Association to give a presentation,” he said. “Indigenous people can look into this information, collect the data, and figure out a solution on our own. That’s very beneficial for us.”