Trafficked Voices: A documentary on human cargo in a national crisis

Lauren Roulston • Apr. 2, 2024

“The biggest thing that’s across three films is that we must prevent. Curing is difficult, expensive, a huge trauma. I don’t even have the words, a huge trauma to the survivors.”

Trafficked Voices is a documentary shedding light on the state of human trafficking in Canada. Documentarian Viveka Melki shares the accounts of three survivors, family members, and experts in the field of anti human trafficking. She spoke with me over a Zoom call to discuss her research, the methods traffickers use to lure and groom, and what’s being done to move the conversation forward.

Here’s that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and quality.



Lauren Roulston: The last time we spoke we were talking about your historical documentary The Fence and today we’re talking about Trafficked Voices, which is a huge and shocking account of human trafficking in Canada. I want to, like, start our conversation by understanding what opened your eyes to issue of human trafficking and as a subject that you would end up researching?


Viveka Melki: Well like most people it was right in front of me. And I, like most Canadians, was walking around not realizing that. I was working with one of our Indigenous grandmother circle members and heard about stories of a young woman who ended up being sexually abused and, to make a long story short, thought this was an accident, thought it was just something that happened by chance and it ends up being that she was actually sold multiple times online.

And so that is how it started for me, and I started doing research. We’ve been doing research now for three, going on to four years on this subject. To be clear, all of our films are on domestic sexual human trafficking in Canada. So folks think that this is something coming from outside, in fact we’re talking about something that’s right here within our borders.


LR: Yeah, I remember reading some crazy statistic like in fact, 93 per cent of human trafficking is happening within Canada, it’s not imported.


VM: Yes, exactly. And when I mentioned multiple films let me say that we’re making three films on this subject, which is rare. The first one Trafficked Voices which you mentioned, has already come out with the CBC on The Passionate Eye. The second one we’re making is with Telus which will be streaming on to the Telus platform nationally, and it’s around B.C. and Alberta human trafficking.

The third one is called La Plaque Tournant and it’s for Radio-Canada. It comes out in the fall and it’s on trafficking specifically around Quebec and francophone issues with trafficking also.


LR: I know this is kind of a huge question, but what have you noticed difference-wise between these demographics of these three different films, how is it different within Canada, human trafficking?


VM: That’s a really good question and I hate to tell you but it’s very similar. In fact, this is exactly why we need three films, to tell us that this is a national issue that needs to be addressed at a federal level without the provincial jurisdiction of borders that’s occurring. Whether it’s in law enforcement or legal it needs to be addressed federally.

For example, in Trafficked Voices, the wonderful Kelly Beale who’s in the film, there should be a Kelly Beale for every province and there isn’t.

Kelly Beale, Counsel, Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario, speaking in Trafficked Voices (Melki Films, 2023)


So I believe there are moves for that out of British Columbia, but Ontario is the only one who has a Kelly Beale. Things like that would facilitate the work and the prevention and the support of those who are in the anti human trafficking movement. Because there’s a lot of silos going on and that is an issue.

And I’m not a lawmaker, so that could be a legislative issue. But that’s not something that’s helping the situation. But the biggest thing that’s across three films is that we must prevent. Curing is difficult, expensive, a huge trauma. I don’t even have the words, a huge trauma to the survivors.

So we must talk about prevention for this issue.


LR: And so, in light of that prevention we need a little bit more work from federal and provincial governments. What can you tell me about federal and provincial governments’ current stances towards human trafficking?


VM: There is funding dedicated to this. I cannot answer for what’s happening inside of the walls but I can say that there are many organizations that are working on the ground to support.

As I said there are many levels of amazing people that we’ve met working in, whether it’s shelters or housing or front line police officers, a lot of people who are working to better understand this issue, and that’s what we hope that Trafficked Voices did.

We have had feedback since the film came out that it has done that, that folks who watch it understand. Not only from whether you’re a parent or you have a sister in life, we’ve heard that those in the field have appreciated having a tool that could help them explain this, cause it’s very hard to understand.

The psychology behind it is hard to understand, and the brave survivors who came into our film to help us understand this, it’s really moved the conversation, which is amazing.


LR: And I want to talk more about those voices that have helped move the conversation, too, but first I want to talk about how anybody can be trafficked. But based on what I’ve read and the research that you’ve done, the average age of the victims can be quite young. Can you tell me more about what you found out about this group of people?


VM: Yeah, I think that was shocking to me and to my team. Stats vary between 14 and 16. Definitely under 18. Our film and our research firsthand found 14 to be the average age.

You’re talking about, wow, what a beautiful age, right? The age of vulnerability, age of sexuality, the age of becoming. It’s an amazing time and that, we found, was the average that we were seeing. It’s very sad for me to say that because it’s terrible.

And I have spoken in schools which I like to do, I’ve spoken at schools around the film since then. And I’m looking at a room of wonderful youth who have no idea that they are being targeted through so many of the social media platforms. And the shock on their faces when I told them that Snapchat is the number one entry point for traffickers to contact youth.

While researching Trafficked Voices, Viveka Melki found Snapchat to be a choice method for traffickers to contact youth (May Gauthier/UNSPLASH)


So if we can just keep doing that, if we can invest in education. If we can just inform them. Because for those of us that are parents, for those of us that know young people, were young people, right? We were all there. We knew that we never thought of those dangers and so it’s really a skilled manipulation of that age group who would never think of this.


LR: Yeah, and I think that vulnerability is a key word to answering the ‘why’ these ages are being targeted, too. But it’s interesting because there are parents who might not know how to address conversations when it comes to social media platforms because it seems like the models of human trafficking are always evolving to see how they can get to this demographic. That shocks me that Snapchat was the main way, can you tell me how you found that out?


VM: Well, because you’re making friends and you’re sending photos and things disappear, but they don’t disappear. We’ve seen that the online luring and grooming is very heavily on sending photos of yourself and then using that for bribery.

We’ve seen that it becomes basically, waits  for someone’s vulnerability, whether it’s “I fought with my mom,” it’s not even as big as “my parents are getting divorced.” It’s like, “I fought with my mom and I hate her.” Like it’s just basic, basic stuff that causes an entry point.

We’re also not to say that it’s only there. Luring and grooming is occurring anywhere from the local gym, to youth centre, it’s happening everywhere and it’s about educating our youth in what is a healthy relationship and what is consent.

These are big things, but very much what love is and what healthy is, what someone can ask you to do or not to do if they’re in a relationship with you. And just making them aware that these platforms are porous. Because you said something just now and I love this phrase that we learned along our journey which was, “trafficking is like water, it moves to the place of least resistance.” And that’s the thing, it changes so quickly.

So we, who are in anti human trafficking, are trying to keep up. So the thing we have to do is teach out kids and they’re very receptive, the classrooms I spoke to are very receptive. There’s just really this shock on their face that they did not think that that person on social media is not who they say they are.

Or, very high levels also, if it’s a female who’s luring for someone else. That’s the other one that we don’t talk about a lot, it’s the unexpected. So just really understanding that someone who wants to be your friend… you have to be careful if you haven’t really met that person or you don’t really know their circle.

We live in a world where they want 700 friends on Snapchat, but do they really know who those people are, and do they really know what’s being asked?


LR: And it could happen anywhere, at anytime, to anyone pretty much.


VM: It really can, and I want to say something. Like we obviously have the stats that unfortunately around 52 per cent of human trafficking events can be occurring in Indigenous communities or can be occurring to members of BIPOC communities. But I don’t want that to make an excuse for anyone to look away and say, “oh, it’s not my kid. Oh, it can’t be in my neighbourhood.”

This is happening in every town and city across this country, every single town. So don’t ever think that it’s not happening close to you, or it can’t happen to your kid because they don’t fit some demographic. That would be a mistake, because it is happening to all peoples in this country. It’s really very serious.


LR: I think something that you captured really well in Trafficked Voices is this sense of how close to home it is, because you were in the houses of, you know, a mother who was so worried about her daughter and it becomes that much more real. It’s close to home but it also feels like it’s huge and a little out of reach.


VM: It feels surreal, you’re like, “this can’t be happening, this can’t have happened to my friends’ kid.” I mean I think one of the most moving parts for me was Brenda who was the mother in our film whose daughter was trafficked, and how fast it happened.

It was again, luring online through Facebook very quickly through a female contact, very quickly she ends up in Toronto and she ends up trafficked for a short period of time.



Now let’s not underestimate what I’m saying there, a short period of time is 24-hours out of a hotel room. You’re talking about back-to-back clients and you’re talking about a couple thousand dollars being made.

So this isn’t small potatoes here, we’re talking about sort of an average victim bringing in $350,000 to $400,000 at least, per victim, so it’s a lot of money. This is not small business I think people really need to understand how much money is being made here.


LR: Right, the traffickers make so much money and the victims often see none of it.


VM: They see none of it and then often times, which is one aspect in this particular film, is that they come out with debt. They come out with credit card debt for hotel rooms that have been charged to them with their identities stolen with the inability to rent an apartment after that, to have a job, they don’t have bank accounts.

That’s what fascinated me, it was also the long-term damage that was occurring to them that was not being discussed. We’re not thinking of after. “Oh, well, they’re out,” no they’re also dealing with car loans in their names that they still have to answer for.


LR: Which is another method of trying to keep them in the system too, another piece of blackmail that can be used.


VM: Right, right. I have to say, to be positive, since the film we’ve had a really interesting reaction from corporate, from banks, and from companies who are trying to become more aware. Because if you’re a car company, if you’re a bank, if you’re Visa, maybe you didn’t know.

And it’s all about employee training, and I am hopeful about that. I’m hopeful, because in the end yes it’s fraud, but you’re also, thank God, helping these survivors because they can’t explain to you, “what do you mean, I took the card?” No you didn’t, “I took the student loan, no it wasn’t me!”

These are things that I just hoped would be better understood after the film.


LR: Yeah, it’s all part of advancing that conversation forward like you said and it’s interesting to see that that can reach corporate, too, which can have greater impacts.


VM: Yep, it really can. And I say we have power by our purchase and I think that is exactly what I’m saying, I hope that and I know that some corporations have stepped up and said okay, what’s our role, how can we help? How can we start to see this, and train our staff to see it?


LR: So that’s been one of the reactions you’ve had since the film, what else have you heard so far?


VM: We’ve had a number of survivors reach out to us and say thank you for making the film and that this was a part of their story and I really appreciate that. As I said, the education part, we’re hoping that the film continues to be used in schools and to educate, it needs support around that, it’s not an easy film to watch.

I want to say, there’s a policy at Melki Films which we call our ethical storytelling policy, and anytime that that film is seen, something goes back to the survivors who were in the film. That’s really important for us.

They had immense courage in coming forth to tell their story, and we hope to help improve their lives, we don’t just make a film on people and then leave, that’s not what we’re trying to do. We hope that us being part of your story meant that you moved your dial, that you were able to, either go back to school or have housing or just get through everyday a little bit easier. That’s what we hope.

So, the film has been nominated in a few festivals. It won best documentary at the LA Women in Film, which is great. And again, for me, it’s really about people becoming aware of this… you know, it helps the conversation.


LR: And that ethical storytelling is such an important foundation to be able to share those stories, and I want to talk about one specific survivor in the film. I was so shocked to hear that Jeannie being trafficked in these cargo ships on the Great Lakes, that was mind-blowing to me. What were some of the things that shocked you when you were researching for this?


VM: Well I have to give credit where it’s due. There’s a researcher out of the United States who had written a long time ago about this. You ask any Indigenous community and they will tell you they knew this was happening. Thunder Bay we know it’s still happening.

Jeannie was incredibly brave to come forward and then to come into the light, as we call it, which was a decision she made at some point during the filming.

(Trafficked Voices, Melki Films)


I was blown away it was happening, it just blew me away. We have heard of this international waters, but that it’s happening right out of Canadian waters is really something. So I don’t have words for her courage. I think I will be haunted by her interview for the rest of my life.

It’s really terrible. What’s terrible, is that it’s still happening. I think I’ve gone past shock and terrible into, what are we doing about it? What are we going to do about that? We know it’s happening. We know it’s happening outside of work camps… it’s not just happening at big events like Formula One, it’s happening at any major event. It’s happening in Ottawa downtown.

So I mean, what shocks me is as a society how we are all a part of it. And I’m not talking about purchasing someone who’s being trafficked, I’m talking about clean water in Inuit communities in the North. I’m talking about shelter, enough shelter for people who are exiting.

We are all part of this, we need to look at poverty and the price of living and the cost of life. We need to look at that, and then we’re looking at fixing trafficking.

It can happen to anyone and it happens because life is very expensive. Across the film you’ll see there’s no judgement of choices that people make. And for me there’s no judgement, that includes sex work. I don’t have judgement there. What I’m trying to say though, is that society has to hold itself responsible as a whole.


LR: Addressing those systemic issues as a means of prevention, like you said earlier.


VM: That’s right, exactly.


LR: I remember another thing that Jeannie said in the film is that she was billed when she got back to Canada, and there were no further questions.


VM: Yeah! Yes, we are working on that, heh. Yeah, I haven’t heard from Global Affairs that that’s been changed, come back to me in six months, and then we’ll see! I haven’t heard anything, I’d love to know if something happened with that. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll follow up on it, because I believe that’s still happening also.


LR: And then, that moment where she stepped into the light, it was like a moment in the film that kind of gave me the, like, [snaps] “oh this is what we talked about with The Fence!” Where that storytelling, giving someone a platform where they can be comfortable to heal, to move forward with this story, and seeing that was so incredible and must have been so hard for her. What was that like for you as a filmmaker as well, in that room?


VM: That was not easy. That’s not easy for her, til this day. We tried to provide support during the making of the film as much as we could for that. What was it like? I was blown away that she decided to do it, at her courage. My God, it was so much about what this is about, which is coming out of the shadows and into the light and claiming it, because it’s almost like we don’t believe it otherwise.

Jeannie interviewed anonymously for Trafficked Voices before coming into the light (Trafficked Voices, Melki Films)


You know, I called Jeannie, it’s funny it’s tattooed on her hand, but I called Jeannie ‘The Queen.’ She was amazing, she was just- it was like looking at a queen on her throne, frankly. She’s just this amazing person.

And her voice is amazing, too, I know you work in the world of voice, such a strong powerful voice. So yeah, it was incredible, unexpected, and I just want her to always know that we appreciated that and that it has changed things for people.

I think it’s clear that the survivors in this film came forward, or discussed their story or their families’ story because they want to prevent it for someone else. That’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to say, “please listen. This can happen and you’ve got to watch out and you’ve got to be careful.”

So, incredible courage. This film was hard because we filmed through the pandemic, right? This was a pandemic film, which is how you see that a lot of people are alone but not together. It was very difficult to do. I remember we were filming in deserted cities, there was nobody anywhere. It was a very eerie sort of feeling making this film.


LR: And then, I want to take it back to these survivors because they have such powerful voices and I remember hearing from another one, Augusta, she was, I remember the term “Romeo’d” by a pimp. But for people who might not be familiar, could you explain a little bit about Romeo and maybe some of the other ways that victims are lured?


VM: Yes, one of the most common forms, I think. Romeo-ing is when somebody falls in love with you. You make somebody fall in love with you through a careful study of what they need in life, through a careful study of their vulnerabilities and of what they want.

(Trafficked Voices, Melki Films)


That could be a white picket fence, it could be education, it could be “I can’t pay university,” it could be “I’ve had a lonely childhood and I need love,” it could be anything. But the person falls in love with an individual. And very quickly, between three to six weeks, even.

It can start very simply with, “I need money, baby, can you help me? I know you love me, it’s just going to be this time,” and it ends up being multiple times. “We’re going to share the money,” and then there’s no money, and quickly the person is being trafficked multiple times a day.

It can move from ‘Romeo into ‘Gorilla,’ which is fear. “I’m gonna hurt your family, I’m gonna kill your dog,” everything. It can go very quickly. But Romeo-ing, for me, happens a lot with young people, happens a lot with that teenage group, who as I think I said earlier, we have to teach healthy relationships.

And Lauren, I’m going to say something quite bold which is, we have to look at early childhood. We have to look at childhood and where kids are growing up, if they’re growing up in care, what is the support, what’s the psychological support? Because it’s all starting young, and if we don’t fix young, then we are creating more vulnerable teens.

It’s not just starting suddenly, you’re 13, you know, it’s coming from somewhere else. And so those in care, we know, in our second film we’re talking about that, those who are in care are more vulnerable, too. So we have to go way back to see where this is starting. But that’s what Romeo-ing is, and that’s what happened to Augusta.


LR: Very manipulative. Do we know about how these methods of trafficking – we touched on it a little bit earlier – but how they’ve evolved over time, with say, the advances of technology and social media, I’m also thinking specifically about a rise in sugar daddies.


VM: Yeah. I mean Lauren, let’s talk about a rise in the cost of education. If you’re trying to pay for university and you’re holding down three jobs while trying to go to school, has anyone seen their grocery bill lately? Like let’s talk about those costs.

And how about if somebody’s sick at home, and all the money’s going to help them. There’s all these things that I was saying that make a fractured and a fragile society.

So yes, has there been a change? Well, most movement across the country happens in vehicles. Vehicles are a big mover. But airports, busses, the transport is happening in all kids of ways. What’s changed is the online component.

That is like, imagine one giant gateway that’s opened, and then you’re saying, “hey, come in!” So it’s basically, that’s the big gateway, this is no longer happening as I said, at a bar or, yes it’s happening at university campuses Kelly I think mentions it, it’s huge on campuses. You have sometimes traffickers who go and sit in classrooms and pretend to be students until a girl falls in love or a boy.

Let’s not forget this is happening to men and boys, too and it’s happening to LGBTQ2 communities a lot, so it’s happening. But again, yes, it’s happening on campus, the student loan one shocked me most of all, wow, student loans being taken out.

So yeah, I would say that online component is the biggest highway that has opened that we are not even close – and you know Lauren it makes me angry because why isn’t our government protecting us a little bit more or why isn’t someone protecting our kids a little bit more.

Cause every parent will say, you know, every parent goes through it, right? The social media nightmare. Keeping them off their phones. But we need to really understand the cost of this if we don’t actually do some kind of protection.


LR: So those were all the questions I had for you today, did you have anything else that you wanted to add?


VM: I want to say that I will keep talking about this until our kids are safe. I just can’t – you know, for me to dedicate five years of my life to this subject, you and I met on a film called The Fence where we talked about women in camps for 14 hours a day being sexually assaulted. This is happening off the 401 highway.

So before we look to other societies for that we need to look to ourselves, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the commodification of humans in our own country. And what I want to say is thank you for asking me these questions today, and to parents and everyone don’t be afraid. Watch the film and talk to your kids.

If you can’t show the film to your kids cause it’s 14+, at least talk to them. But if you can’t talk about sex to your kids you can’t talk about trafficking. So you have to actually bring those two things in together so that you can have an open conversation cause if they’re not talking to you, they’ll talk to someone. So it better be you, right?

And I said this to a classroom which was quite shocking, I said you need to teach the kids the value- you need to teach your kids their value in life or somebody else will teach them their value. And you better put a price on that. You have to teach them their immense value as a person so that they don’t go seeking that validation somewhere else.


LR: Spreading awareness in the youth, spreading self-confidence in the youth but also trying to combat these crises that we’re facing like the cost of living.


VM: Absolutely. Because this isn’t just about buying and selling somebody. This is not just about sex. It’s about something far more complex and I think that’s harder for us to do an ad campaign around. It’s harder to admit what’s happening in our own country with poverty.


LR: A hard conversation but it’s gotta be had.


VM: That’s right. Thank you for having it.


LR: Thank you so much for being on the show again I really appreciate it.


VM: It’s a pleasure Lauren.


Trafficked Voices  is available for free on CBC Gem on The Passionate Eye.