It was 30 years ago, when she was a small-town country girl in Grey-Bruce in her early teens, when Amanda Preston had been manipulated by a new female friend and taken to Toronto where she met a group of individuals who she soon learned would sexually exploit her.
“I believe it is only by the grace of God that I was able to escape one day, a day that I barely can remember and it has taken almost three decades to muster up the courage to begin sharing my story so that others know that they are not alone,” Preston said.
“I was afraid for many years. But, as I began to see awareness being raised around me in my community, I was able to put on a brave face and begin to slowly share my story because I wanted others to know that they are not alone. Every time I share or help to bring awareness to the issue of sexual trafficking in our communities, I have a moment of victory in my own personal journey towards conquering the fear that overwhelmed my life for many years.
“I read a quote once that says, ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’”
That quote was by Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist who served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
It is Preston’s wish that by telling her story and being open to others, she can be a beacon of courage for other victims and survivors to come out of the shadows into their own journey of hope, healing and freedom.
Preston was introduced to a girl at a party on the outskirts of Owen Sound. At the time, Preston was in a vulnerable period of her life as a year-and-a-half before she had been sexually assaulted by an older man in a public space.
“That was the first time I had ever called the police,” Preston said.
News of this incident reached all over, including being released in the newspaper and broadcasted over the radio.
“Unfortunately, not everyone was kind,” Preston said. “I received a lot of negative attention and was bullied by a group of boys who would consistently taunt me and call me derogatory names.”
Preston received counselling for a year while the trial was in process.
“At the time, there was an overload of cases in the court system and a few days before I was to attend court I received news that the charges had been withdrawn,” Preston said. “The justice system had failed me, and after that I never called the police again.”
The girl that Preston met at that party in Owen Sound offered her a better life, and said that she could help Preston find a job and an apartment in Toronto.
“It wasn’t hard to convince me then, as I wanted to escape all of my problems,” Preston said. “She bought me a bus ticket. I remember sitting on that bus as it was driving down Highway 10, looking out the window and picturing how wonderful my new life would be. I would have a new job and my own apartment in a new city.”
She soon discovered that this would be far from the truth.
“Many victims are exploited by trusted people such as boyfriends and they are often manipulated into thinking they are not being trafficked,” Preston said. “Statistics show that 92 per cent of victims know the person accused of trafficking them. However, my story is different, as I didn’t know my exploiters.”
When Preston arrived in Toronto, she was introduced to a group of individuals who she soon learned would sexually traffic and exploit her within the inner streets of downtown Toronto.
“I was shamed at the time for what happened to me. All it took was for one person to corrupt the truth about what had been done to me,” Preston said. “People didn’t understand back then, even today many don’t fully understand. There are far too many assumptions made that unless you are physically restrained, that it is a choice and that you can leave anytime.
“But, victims don’t ask to be hurt, to be abused or to be exploited. Whether you are manipulated, intimidated, threatened violence upon or introduced to drugs and become addicted in order for your trafficker to control you, it isn’t your fault. For almost three decades I was a girl fighting inside to be seen, not for a “label” but for the horrible injustice that had been done to her.”
Preston said she used to think sharing her story wouldn’t be important or impact others because her exploitation lasted about three weeks before she was able to escape.
“But, I know today it doesn’t matter if you are victimized once, twice or for a long period,” Preston said. “Once is too many. And I want other victims and survivors to know that your story does matter, and especially, that you matter. You don’t have to hide in shame and blame anymore. There are people and support services out there that want to help and CARE Project Grey-Bruce wants to be there for you.”
CARE Project Grey-Bruce
Recently, Preston helped form the CARE Project Grey-Bruce in support of The Women’s Centre Grey Bruce Inc. The purpose of this project is to provide essential care package donations to The Women’s Centre Grey Bruce for women and children that are escaping all types of violence and abuse.
The CARE Project stands for compassion, advocacy, response and education.
“Emergency shelter is one of the most requested referrals survivors seek when reaching out for help when in crisis situations,” Preston said. “A woman or child’s first moments after fleeing an unsafe environment can be scary and overwhelming. I believe that care packages help those in process to feel supported, secure and believed. The Women’s Centre Grey Bruce relies on people like us to keep continuing that support.”
Preston said she asked the community to help be that support by donating new essential care items to this project that were to be packaged and delivered to the local shelter on Thanksgiving weekend as an expression of thanks.
Recently, Preston took part with many individuals in the Save the Children End Human Trafficking March in Owen Sound to raise awareness of and see an end to human trafficking locally and across the world.
“I am incredibly moved to see this type of public reach in the community of Grey-Bruce, as it is an uncomfortable conversation and far too many people still believe that human trafficking doesn’t happen here,” Preston said. “I was encouraged to see so many cars beeping and slowing down to read the signs we carried the day of that march. I remember one girl who slowed down to open her window and said, ‘why didn’t I know about this?’
“People were impacted that day and while I may never know the full extent of that reach, I am sure there were interactions that day that has kept this conversation going.”
What can be done to raise more awareness?
Preston believes awareness needs to begin in schools, and while students and children are taught the issues of bullying, drugs and alcohol and mental health, we need to not forget the importance of this topic “that needs our attention more than ever.”
That’s especially true, Preston added, because of the increased use of social media as a means to lure victims. Those social media sites include Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok or the dating site, Tinder.
“I believe having curriculum in our elementary and high school system to address the issue of human trafficking at an age-appropriate learning level would be very beneficial,” Preston said. “Statistics show that almost three in 10 victims are reported to be under the age of 18 with the average age of recruitment in Canada being between 12 and 14 years old.
“It is important that children begin to understand the reality of this issue, learn the signs of trafficking, how it can happen, how they can protect themselves, and what resources are available if they feel that they or someone they know is at possible risk or in danger.”
Thirty years ago, Preston said, she didn’t know what human trafficking was, nor that she had been a victim.
“I was only able to identify and understand fully what had happened to me when awareness of this issue began to slowly creep up in motion film about 15 years ago and steadily increase into public awareness workshops and conferences with increased media attention in Grey-Bruce over the past five years,” Preston said.
“It is vital that we continue to share resources with each other and support the agencies and services in our communities that provide help and assistance to victims and survivors of this type of exploitation. I didn’t know until last year that there were resources available to me almost three decades later for what had happened to me, which was described as an historical event. In 2019, I was made aware of the Victim Witness Assistance Program that actually funded me to receive counselling for the trauma related to my sexual trafficking experience.”
Preston also believes it is important for support agencies and services to continue to do their part by doing their best to establish positive relationships with the victims and survivors they meet.
“Often, exploiters will manipulate those that they have trafficked into having distrust for authority figures, as our police services,” Preston said. “Unfortunately, this is one reason that human trafficking is widely-unreported across Canada. We need to continue to work together in partnership. Every community in Grey-Bruce has the need for those vital resources to assist survivors and to educate the entire region on the horrifying trends of trafficking.”
Find the CARE Project online at www.careprojectgb.org as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
On Oct. 17, Fight4Freedom walkers will be walking in Barrie, Brampton, Chicago, downtown Toronto, Etobicoke, Grey-Bruce, Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener, Markham, Milton, Mississauga, Montreal, Niagara, North York, Oakville, Pickering, Scarborough, Stouffville and West Toronto.
On that day, Preston is encouraging people to raise their voices all around Grey Bruce to help bring more awareness to sex trafficking.
This is an annual march, however, it is the first to be held in Grey-Bruce. Preston is the team leader for the walk this year for the area.
If you would like to join alongside the team, they have chosen to walk in Port Elgin that day. The team will be meeting out front of the Shoreline Baptist Church at 1 p.m.
What can you do if you suspect someone is being trafficked?
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For those who suspect a person is being trafficked, please call the confidential Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010, or online at canadianhumantraffickinghotline.ca.
If you want to report a potential victim or crime, call your local police or remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or submitting a secure web tip at www.cstip.ca.
Contact your nearest service providers for information and to find out what supports are available.
Victim Services Bruce Grey Perth: In partnership with emergency services, the organization provides assistance to victims of human trafficking, which may need access to safe and secure housing, food, clothing and counselling. Contact their 24-hour contact line at 1-866-376-9852 or visit www.vsbgp.com for more information.
Victim/Witness Assistance Program – Owen Sound: The Vulnerable Victim and Family Fund provides financial help and court-based support for victims of violent crime and families of homicide victims. Eligibility determined on a case-by-case basis. Phone: 1-866-259-4823 or 519-376-8927 (519-376-VWAP).
Violence Prevention Grey-Bruce: The Human Trafficking Committee examines and responds to human trafficking in Grey and Bruce counties. Members represent organizations working to prevent and respond to human trafficking as well as interested community members and people with lived experience. Learn more at violencepreventiongreybruce.com.
The Women’s Centre Grey Bruce: If you are a woman suffering from abuse, harassment or assault, you do not have to face this crisis alone. You can call their Crisis Help Line at 519-371-1600, 1-800-265-3722 or text them at 226-974-0755.
Keystone Child, Youth and Family Services: A family engaged counselling and coordinating Lead Agency that is dedicated to providing compassionate, responsive services to children, youth, families and community members. They provide service for children and youth from 0-17 years and their families. Call 519-371-4773.
211: For access to a full range of community, social and government support programs and services, call 211 or visit www.211Ontario.ca.