Around the world, over 40 million people are victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. But this isn't just a faraway problem. The Global Slavery Index estimates 17,000 people live in conditions of modern slavery in Canada. Those who escape face enormous challenges reintegrating into society.

Victims of human trafficking and modern slavery can be any age, gender, race and socio-economic background. Made to work against their will, they suffer physical or emotional abuse and live and work in horrific conditions. Faced with potentially fatal consequences if they attempt to escape, victims can be trapped for years.

For those who manage to break away, they may face tremendous challenges in their efforts to rebuild their lives, including stigma, blame, alienation and fear of retaliation. For example, they could lack basic documents, such as passports, social insurance numbers and health cards, which would limit their ability to access the financial products and services that are necessary for securing shelter, employment and a promising future.

The Survivor Inclusion Initiative makes it easier for Survivors to live the life they have dreamed of – and deserve.

The Survivor Inclusion Initiative: Bridging the gap to financial access

Gaining access to financial services is an essential step on a Survivor’s path to reintegration – yet it’s typically exceptionally difficult to obtain. Survivors may have been victimized at a young age and have therefore never been to a bank. They may have little to no credit history due to debts incurred by the traffickers and have gaps in financial literacy, making it incredibly difficult for them to get access to financial products and services once they have escaped their trafficking situation and are attempting to rebuild their lives.

This is where the Survivor Inclusion Initiative comes in. Organized by Finance Against Slavery & Trafficking (FAST), a project housed at the United Nations University Center for Policy Research (UNU-CPR), the initiative brings together Survivor support organizations and financial institutions to provide equitable access to financial services for Survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery.

In this case, FAST has brought together RBC and Salvation Army Illuminate for a one-year pilot project. “We facilitate the process and ensure the banks have the right tools in order to provide the banking services Survivors need,” explains Alexandra Cerquone, External Relations Manager at FAST.

The pilot program is designed to help Survivors in two key ways. First, by providing an unlimited chequing and savings account, free for one year, which can help Survivors access fundamental opportunities and services.

“When you don’t have a track record or proper documentation, you can be easily rejected from getting access to the products and services Canadians typically have access to,” explains Martin Thibodeau, RBC Regional President. “It’s difficult for these Survivors to have access to the things that Canadians take for granted.”

Second, by offering financial literacy training and assistance to help them build a secure future for themselves and their families.

“Financial literacy is so important to this program,” explains Larissa Maxwell, Director, Anti-Human Trafficking Programs at Salvation Army Illuminate, a Survivor support organization that refers Survivors to financial institutions, establishes the program framework and provides training for banking staff.

“Some Survivors haven’t had the opportunity to develop basic skills such as budgeting, saving and investing,” she explains, indicating that developing financial literacy skills is crucial to building a Survivor’s long-term success and realizing real change in their lives. “If a Survivor did not have access to economic means for a long period of time and all of a sudden they do, they may either spend everything or not spend anything. And as they come into support, they will have different avenues for justice – they could get compensation such as funding for back wages. Survivors could go from zero cashflow to a significant compensation cheque, and they need the tools to use their finances to help them move their lives forward.”

For RBC, the decision to participate in the program was an easy one. “The program is very aligned to our core values at RBC of Diversity and Inclusion,” explains Thibodeau. “In this case we’re not just talking about diversity but about inclusion into the financial system. It’s important for these individuals to have access like any other Canadian.”

Building relationships to help rebuild lives

Survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery are among the most vulnerable members of society targeted for abuse. To truly assist them as they rebuild their lives, it’s critical they establish relationships with people and organizations they can trust. Part of Maxwell’s role in the Survivor Inclusion Initiative is to develop a sensitivity framework for the RBC advisors who will be working with the Survivors, indicating that they are not typical banking clients.

“Finances can be intimidating for anyone, and for individuals with little financial experience – particularly those emerging from this type of situation – they can experience feelings of frustration, failure and incompetence,” says Maxwell, who emphasizes the need to have inclusive, open and empowering financial conversations. Martin Thibodeau couldn’t agree more.

“We’re really proud to work at RBC where we approach every relationship with empathy and caring and being thoughtful of human dimensions,” he says. “For this group, our financial advisors had modern slavery sensitive training to ensure they take a trauma informed approach. With this pilot, we want to ensure our staff have all the tools and resources necessary to create a positive client experience,” adding that it’s important for the Survivors and the advisors to develop a relationship based on trust and support.

“Having a financial advisor can help not just rebuild a life, but create an extraordinary life after trafficking,” says Maxwell, indicating that a financial advisor extends the network of support a Survivor can rely on.

From “survive” to “thrive”

Modern slavery and human trafficking rob a person of so many areas of their life. Often, they feel they’ll never be able to have a regular life or catch up on the time they lost. Survivors, like most Canadians, have dreams to be financially stable, to put their kids through college or university, to have a car, buy a home, or perhaps start a business of their own. Most of the public moves toward these goals with few barriers, while the path to achieving even the simplest of milestones can be fraught with obstacles for Survivors. By helping them build back their financial health and awareness, they can get to these same places without considerable roadblocks.

Maxwell further adds that a program like this can also reduce their vulnerability to traffickers and safeguard future generations. “A lot of Survivors are parents and have family members who may also be vulnerable to traffickers. When you build the capacity of one, you can build and raise up the capacity of the whole community.”

Helping clients thrive and communities prosper is RBC’s key purpose, and participating in this program helps the organization live out their purpose and values. Their commitment to lifting up vulnerable and at-risk community members is something Thibodeau and his team are passionate about.

“Through this initiative, our goal is to empower Survivors to transition from a state of survival to a state where they can thrive,” says Thibodeau. “By providing access to financial products and services, and by equipping them with the tools to build financial literacy, we hope that they will truly be able to thrive.”

FAST and the Salvation Army have partnered with other financial institutions to provide access to financial services and financial literacy to Survivors and at-risk individuals across Canada, the U.S. and the UK in the hopes of not only helping those who have been trafficked but those who are vulnerable to the lures of abusers. “When we can provide projects like this, we can shore up gaps and eradicate trafficking,” says Maxwell.

Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.

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