03/27/2014 06:18 EDT | Updated 05/27/2014 05:59 EDT

Human trafficking: Why are aboriginal women vulnerable?

Alia Parisien counts herself lucky that she found Honouring Gifts.

The program, at Ka Ni Kanichihk in Winnipeg, gives aboriginal women a second chance and teaches them jobs skills. Most of these women are overcoming challenges such as addictions, brushes with the law, and sexual exploitation.

“I was getting money as a kid, and it was so easy to get money from this guy just to do whatever he wanted to do to me,” said Parisien, now a 25-year-old mother.

She says the sexual abuse went on for six years. Every time it happened, he paid her. As she got older she says she thought about selling herself.

“I could have easily gone into the lifestyle, I was brainwashed, I was molested, I had my kids, I had a drinking problem, was going into drugs,” said Parisien.

Aboriginal girls and women over-represented 

CBC News sat down with Parisien and five other of the women in the program.  

Every one of them knew at least one person who was involved in the sex trade. They say that’s how common it is in their community.

The Canadian Women’s foundation is one of the first to conduct cross-country research on human trafficking. There is little known about how it works, where it exists, and who are the victims.

“It's really underground and that's really the main reason why we still to this day cannot get at numbers [of victims],” says Diane Redsky, who is the project director for the Canadian Women's Foundation National Taskforce on Human Trafficking.

The taskforce is made up of 23 experts. It held consultations in eight different Canadian cities and met with front line workers, police, crown attorneys and sex trafficking survivors.

“What we were able to capture by going across the country is recognizing that there are some trends, depending on where you are in the country,” says Redsky.

One of those trends is an over-representation of aboriginal women and girls.

Redsky says the taskforce estimates that 50 per cent of the women being trafficked in Canada are aboriginal. The same goes for underage victims.

In Manitoba, those who work with the exploited women estimate that at least 90 per cent are aboriginal.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Dana Connelly, who runs the Honouring Gifts program. “But I am absolutely appalled, outraged and disgusted.”

Why aboriginal girls and women are at risk

The women in Honouring Gifts didn’t have trouble agreeing on why aboriginal women are easy prey for traffickers and exploiters.

“A lot of us grew up with poverty and not having all of those nice things,” says Kayla Hobson, a 26-year-old mother of two.

“Not having that support system and role models encouraging us to do good,” she adds.

Hobson says she sold drugs when she was younger. For her it glamorous, but she says it was also a necessity.

She says the drug trade and sex trade go hand-in-hand. Many people she knows grew up thinking that is normal.

“The one friend I have just sees it [sex-trade] as a natural thing,” says Hobson.  “She can laugh about it; just being able to get that easy money.”

Amber Fontaine, 22, also  talked about a friend that may have be a victim of human trafficking.

“I guess you could say she was lured,” said Fontaine.

She says her friend was groomed by older women who were working the sex trade. Fontaine knows those women as well.

“It’s like she doesn’t have her own mind. They just tell her how to do it, it’s like she doesn’t make her own decisions,” says Fontaine.

Fontaine’s friend is addicted to drugs and sells her body to feed her addiction.Fontaine started drinking and doing drugs when she was 13, just like her friend.

“I definitely could have started getting into the sex trade, doing the same things she did,” she said..

Now she is coming up on her one-year anniversary of being sober.

Moving forward

Dana Connolly runs Honouring Gifts. She said that of all the exploited women she has worked with, not one chose to do it.

"When you are hungry, you will do anything you have to to eat. If you have a child that you have to feed... you are going to do anything to get that child fed."

Connolly said there needs to be more programs for vulnerable women. like Honouring Gifts.

"It's just giving them options, showing them that there are resources, supports, bringing them together," said Connolly.

"Now I am learning to be a survivor and advocate and tell people to speak up about it,” said Alia Parisien.

She is now working to become role model for her own children.