When Human Trafficking is too close to home

Living Water Resort.

Living Water Resort.

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

COLLINGWOOD, Ont. — On Tuesday, Feb. 5, the Ontario Provincial Police informed Larry Law and Don Buckle of Living Water Resort & Spa that the Mexican cleaners they had hired through RTL, a temporary agency, were victims of human trafficking. Their response was the start of a community effort to help the victims.

The story appeared in the local and Toronto media. For a few months, the police in nearby Barrie, Ont., had been investigating an organized crime ring that had misled the workers into coming to Canada with the promise of jobs and education. Instead, they were housed in substandard quarters, 30 to a house, paying $400 a month in rent plus money for food, sleeping on mattresses in Barrie and Wasaga Beach, Ont. They had very little clothing, and were fined for infractions such someone smoking in the house, leaving about $50 a month in pay. 

“We were sad that they were being treated as slaves,” said Law, owner and founder of the resort. “We hired the agency and paid the agency at a decent wage.  Later we found out that the workers were told not to talk.” They learned that the cleaners also worked at hotels in Collingwood, Innisfil, Oro-Medonte and Cornwall, Ont. 

“As a Christian businessman, I felt for them,” Law said. “For many years, we have been saying our work is business as a mission, work with purpose. Today we now understand the larger vision of our purpose and what God has been creating for us.”

Larry Law.

Larry Law.

The alleged victims needed two major things: housing and a job. There were 45 of them, including couples and one four- or five year-old child. “We wanted to jump in and help, so we took them all, knowing we would be giving them a hotel room in the busy season. Then we figured out how much work we had to offer, knowing we could provide jobs for some, but not all of them in the long run,” said Law. 

“The police explained what was going on, and let us know that some of the victims were working at our resort. We were quite shocked. The workers came in, and seemed happy working beside us,” said Buckle, vice-president of Resort Operations and GM. He spoke with victim services and listened to the story of what the victims went through. There was enough financial aid to house them in a motel for a couple of days, but after that they would have to find jobs and families to sponsor them.

“We will take them all,” said Law when Buckle informed him of their plight. 

Buckle then went to Barrie to talk to the workers for three hours. 

“The workers were concerned about coming over. They were hesitant and asked me a bunch of questions,” said Buckle. “The first thing I did was apologize as, as we had no idea what was happening and wanted to be a part of their lives. I said it was true that we wanted to offer them jobs and places to stay. I informed them of their rights here in Canada. They wanted to know whether they were free to leave. I explained about the future and what we could offer them.”

“They had been through a devastating experience and they were very scared. They had suffered physically, but mentally as well,” said Law. 

Don Buckle.

Don Buckle.

“The next morning, the whole team of staff were all ready in the banquet hall to greet them. At that moment, we looked at each other in tears, but also in joy. We felt like we were one spirit,” Law said.

That day, the workers were given lunch and taken to the Salvation Army to get clothing. That night, the hotel prepared a dinner with Mexican wine, Tequila and Spanish food. “We particularly wanted to treat them well, to raise up their self esteem and make them feel good,” Law said. The workers were singing, dancing and having a great time.

The next morning, Law met and was able to talk to the workers, hearing a lot of horrible stories. “One man said to us, 'I went to sleep as a slave and woke up as a free man.'”

Law's actions spawned an outpouring of support from local business, community associations and churches. The Salvation Army was very helpful. Other hotels came forward with offers of employment. Ace Transportation provided their services for free. Collingwood Transit gave the workers two months of free bus passes.

Pastor Daniel Chatham of the Collingwood Journey Community Church, has stepped in to help assess their needs, and says they have a deep desire to work and be productive. Donations of clothing and personal care products have poured in. The Journey Community Church also facilitated any monetary donations, and donations could be made at several businesses in downtown Collingwood. A member of the church, who has worked with a charity in Spanish-speaking Paraguay, offered translation services, as did the local Spanish Club.

“The nicest story came from the parent of a seven-year-old boy, who donated $3 from his savings,” said Law.

Pastor Chatham said, “The couple of questions they wanted an answer was, when can I go to work? At least to a sustainable level, because these people came with a dream for a better life working in Canada.”

“Nobody wants to believe that could happen in a community that you feel so safe and trusting in.  At the same time, I know that it does.  There is more awareness in recent years that these things are happening right under our noses,” Collingwood resident Mel Pockaj told CTV News Barrie.

The challenge now is to determine what their long-term futures will be.

Today, 40 of the workers are at the hotel, as a few have left for Toronto. The child is now attending school. The group has been broken down into smaller cells of eight people, and they will now be housed in townhouse units that have been renovated to have three bedrooms apiece. Volunteers work with each group to act as local guides, and give advice on there they can get support. The workers have been offered church services and the hotel is arranging for ESL training. The hotel and church are looking at getting bicycles for spring, as that's the workers' normal mode of transportation.

There are a lot of highly educated people in the group, Buckle noted. “We started everyone in housekeeping because they wanted the hours. As we get to know them, some have taken on other roles at the hotel. One woman is a supervisor; another gentleman has applied for a position in the sales department; and one wants to be a food and beverage server.”

“Never in my career did I think part of my role would be a big rescue,” said Buckle. “It's an amazing blessing that I am involved with an owner who would jump at the opportunity to help.”

The U.S. federal government department responsible for human trafficking recently contacted the resort. “They said we hit all the right markers,” Buckle said. “They said, 'some organizations take two months to make this type of thing happen; you took two days. So often, people throw their hands up and say no thank you. We have never seen a community response like this.'”