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Cathedral’s present is more than a pretty package

Canada's first Gift Box, an inter-active display on human trafficking, installed in front of St. James Anglican Cathedral in Toronto on July 12, 2015. Gift Box, designed by students at OCAD university, is a project of The Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking and open to visitors during the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. Photo/Michael Hudson
Pedestrians check out the GIFT Box outside St. James Cathedral. Photos by Michael Hudson

By Stuart Mann

St. James Cathedral is giving Toronto a special present this summer. But it comes with a twist.

During the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, a large gift box has been installed on the grounds of the cathedral, located at the corner of King and Church streets.

Although pretty on the outside, the inside of the box tells a much different story. Inside are testimonies and information about human trafficking.

As of July 25, about 600 people had gone through the box. Organizers are hoping that 1,000 people will visit it by the time the Games end on Aug. 15.

“The response has been very positive,” says Leah Watkiss of Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking, one of the groups responsible for bringing the box to Toronto. “People are often shocked to learn that human trafficking is a problem here and it opens their eyes to it.”

Ms. Watkiss described human trafficking as “the recruitment or movement of a person through deception or coercion for the purpose of exploitation.” She said almost every industry has trafficked workers in it.

Ontario has the highest number of people being trafficked in the country. A recent report found 511 instances of trafficking from 2011 to 2013. Given the invisible nature of the crime, says Ms. Watkiss, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Worldwide, 30 million people are being trafficked annually, more than at any point in human history. “When you hear the stories of people who have been trafficked, you can’t help but be moved personally and feel the need to act,” she says.

From left, Justine Lee, Leah Watkiss and Kristin Strong of Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking, stand the GIFT Box.
From left, Justine Lee, Leah Watkiss and Kristin Strong of Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking stand inside the GIFT Box.

The box contains harrowing stories of people who were lured to Ontario with a promise of a better life, only to end up working seven days a week with little or no pay and no way of escape. A poster in the box explains that people are bought and sold for many reasons, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, street crime, domestic servitude or for the sale of organs.

Volunteers at the box are asking visitors to sign a postcard to Premier Kathleen Wynne, calling for an action plan and funding to tackle trafficking in the province. The card says Ontario lags behind other provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, all of which have plans in place.

Visitors are also asked to watch for signs of trafficking and to call the Toronto Human Trafficking Hotline at 416-597-8808 if they see anything suspicious. Signs include a person who doesn’t have control of his or her own money; a person who doesn’t have legal documents or identification; a person who has little or no access to their earnings; or a person who is injured by being controlled or assaulted.

The first GIFT Box, as it is called, was used at the London Olympics in 2012. Since then, similar boxes have been installed in five countries, drawing 50,000 people. Toronto’s GIFT Box is the first in Canada. The box was designed by art students at OCAD University, and a local construction company donated the materials. About 100 volunteers staff it.

“The cathedral has been fantastic,” says Ms. Watkiss. “We were hoping that they would give us a spot on the lawn but they’ve gone above and beyond that in terms of helping support us. They’re always there if we need anything. It’s been a real pleasure.”

She hopes the box will be used in other places once the Games are over. She said her group would consider using it at a church and other places of worship.

The GIFT Box outside the cathedral will be open on July 30 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will be open again from Aug. 7 to Aug. 15, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Aug. 9 at 2 p.m. there will be an interfaith prayer service for trafficked persons at the cathedral. All are invited.