NORTH PRESTON, Nova Scotia, Canada. 1994

Like any mom, Rachel Harnish, 46, loves to show off photos of her children. “That’s Marie,” she says, pointing to a pudgy blond toddler in pigtails, a sand bucket in her hand, framed on a wall in the Harnish’s comfortable house in a Halifax suburb. Rachel brings out an album, points to pictures of a coltish girl swimming, skiing with her older brother and younger sister, posing for school portraits. Then, Rachel reaches the place where her daughter vanishes from the album’s pages. There is a silent pause.

Through the window comes a faint sound of traffic on the nearby highway. There, an occasional big luxury model with tinted windows goes by, heading for Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Behind the smoked glass of some of these cars, men snort cocaine and fondle teenage girls. The girls are headed for a life of prostitution, torture and, sometimes, death. Girls like Rachel Harnish’s daughter. This is their story.

Ten years ago, Marie entered grade 10 in a new school at age 14. She was young, having started school early, but to a child of an Armed Forces family, new places were nothing new. Her mother, a nurse, and father, Tom, a navy captain, were proud that Marie was always at the top of her class. Tom Harnish was especially pleased with his daughter’s prowess in the swim team and baseball club, but Marie, who considered herself both “not pretty” and “not intelligent,” was secretly finding it hard to live up to her dad’s expectations. “If I got an 85 on a test, he’d ask why I didn’t get 90,” she remembers.

Somewhere inside the strictly brought-up, perfect curly-haired child, adolescence unleashed a rebel. In her first year of high school, Marie started wearing heavy-duty makeup and hung out in the school halls with a rough-talking crowd. The new Marie lied to her parents, ignored their curfews and eventually took to staying out all night. Once, she came home after being away for a few days and simply sat on the floor with her hands over her ears, humming, while Tom and Rachel yelled into the abyss before them. A pregnancy by her first boyfriend ended in an abortion supported by her parents. At the start of grade 11, she was expelled for skipping school.

Rachel joined a self-help group for parents of troubled children, but “by the time I woke up to what was happening, Marie was gone.” When Marie was arrested and charged with shoplifting, her father asked the court to restrain her, but the judge put her on probation and gave her a prophetic warning: that she was a young girl on the brink of disaster. Marie’s step off that brink was taken with a new boyfriend — a jobless, young black man with a fancy car, who lived a few kilometers away, in the community of North Preston.

No one knows how many teenage girls have been coerced into a life of prostitution by men from the Halifax-area community of North Preston. Dozens of pimps have been jailed; scores of young women have given evidence of torture and confinement in cities across the continent; a few have been killed. Canada’s homegrown teen-pimping industry is still very much alive.

As far as Marie’s parents were concerned, he might as well have lived on another planet. The dead-end road into North Preston, 20 kilometres northeast of Halifax, winds past shacks cobbled together from tar paper and scrap building materials interspersed with well-kept larger modern homes. Its almost exclusively black residents descend from some of Canada’s earliest non-Indian immigrants and from free Loyalists lured by a British promise of land. The promise turned into a reality of poor land, bad schools and ostracism by the white community. Until the late ’80s, when the province finally built a sewage system, many residents were infected with parasites. Today, its unemployment ranges between 40 and 80 percent.

In this harsh environment was spawned, during the ’70s and ’80s, a huge industry: pimping. Now, in almost every major city in Canada, men from North Preston and three black communities adjacent to it own the rights to most corners on the hookers’ strolls — and own the mostly white teenage girls working them. Even after a nationwide crackdown in the past two years, police believe at least 50 North Preston-based pimps, many related to each other, remain active in the teen-prostitution network.

No one knows how many thousands of Nova Scotia girls have been pimped throughout Canada and as far away as New York, Los Angeles and even, in one case, Naples, Italy. No one knows how many girls have died at the hands of pimps. Until recently, no one seemed to care.

But in 1992, when Toronto police raided an apartment building and a hotel and found seven girls who had been forced by torture to work as prostitutes, the size of the pimping ring and the level of violence finally attracted national publicity — and serious police attention. In Halifax, police established a special task force and, during the past two years, have arrested more than 50 men — many from North Preston — for pimping offences. Dozens more men from the area have been arrested elsewhere in Canada. Some girls and their families have been given new identities under Canada’s witness protection program; other girls have been killed before they could give evidence. (Because Marie is terrified of suffering the same fate, names and identifying details have been changed in this story.) The courts have heard evidence of pimps beating girls, shocking them with stun guns, thrusting hot curling irons into their vaginas. Jail sentences have ranged from several months to seven and a half years.

For Rachel’s daughter, the crackdown came too late.

One weekend, Marie went to visit her boyfriend in North Preston and didn’t come home for two days. When she came in the door, her father lost it. He yelled: “All you’re good for is…,” and the rest was racial epithet. He hit her, hard, for the first time since she was small enough to be spanked. “He was trying to protect me,” says Marie today, huddled in an oversize baseball jacket at her parents’ kitchen table, wreathed in her own cigarette smoke, “but I couldn’t see it.”

“They treated me like gold. I had so much fun … “They said they’d take care of me.” Marie never wondered where the abundance came from.

Marie left home. For two weeks, out of touch with her boyfriend, she slept in parked cars and on the streets. Then, a North Preston girl set her up with a woman who offered to give Marie a room in return for baby-sitting. The next two months were, for a 15-year-old determined to shed all vestiges of her restrictive childhood, the best of times. Richly clothed men trooped through the house; booze and drugs flowed freely. “They treated me like gold. I had so much fun,” says Marie. She never wondered where the abundance came from. When three men offered to take her on a trip to Montreal, Marie was excited. “I said I had no money,” she says. “They said they’d take care of me.”

The group hit the Trans-Canada in a convoy of the usual luxury cars with tinted glass. Marie had become sexually involved with one man in the group, whose name was Jason Smith and who was 20 years older than she. In Montreal, they checked into a hotel together and, that night, he lavished her with extra attentions. The quid pro quo came the following day.

He said he’d done things for me, bought me cigarettes and clothes,” says Marie, “and now he needed me to return the favor.” Jason told Marie to accompany an older girl to a St. Catherine’s Street corner. Even then, Marie insists, she wasn’t quite sure of what was happening. Only when another Nova Scotia girl asked if she had condoms did she really realize she’d been put on the corner to work.

Back home, Rachel Harnish spent a couple of months in agony before she heard word of her missing daughter — and then the pain got worse. An RCMP officer came to call: Marie had been identified by police in Montreal and Toronto as a prostitute. Even after Marie’s rebellious escapades, the news was incomprehensible. This was a smart girl, a girl with unlimited possibilities, a girl brought up in a home where “John” is a man’s name, never anything more. How could she be a…. How could this be?

How? Police say that, while a few girls are known to have been kidnapped and forced into the life, most are coerced less directly. It often starts with romance. Seduced at malls and in schoolyards, courted with restaurant meals and expensive gifts, the girls eventually find themselves cut off from their families and being asked, like Marie, to “return a favor.” They are all, after all, very young. But the pimps also choose their targets well — girls from broken homes, girls living on the streets, girls like Marie who are just, somehow, troubled.

The kids that are stable and know what their lives are about will tell these guys to hit the road,” says Detective David Perry of the Metropolitan Toronto Police. “But kids who are vulnerable and hungry take up their offers of food, clothing and a relationship, and once the girls are with them, they’re the pimp’s property.”

“I think of myself as a rabbit who’d been kept in a cage all its life, because my parents were very strict and I was extremely naive. Then, I got out, and these guys took me to the woods, which were full of wild animals.”

After that, the teens are kept in line by torture and death threats and, perhaps most persuasively, by their own shame at being prostitutes. “These kids, what little self-esteem they have is quickly taken away,” says Perry. “They don’t feel good enough to go back to school, their family, or fit into society. A lot of them don’t know what a family is. The only place they feel they fit in is on the streets with other prostitutes and pimps.”

With the wisdom of hindsight, Marie looks back on her adolescent self and shudders. “Today, I think of myself as a rabbit who’d been kept in a cage all its life, because my parents were very strict and I was extremely naive. Then, I got out, and these guys took me to the woods, which were full of wild animals.”

That first night on the Montreal street corner, Marie had silently refused to go with the strange men who approached her, ignoring the orders of the other Nova Scotia girls to take the Johns to a room up the street.

“I was scared. I didn’t want to do it. When we went back to the hotel, Jason screamed at me and twisted my arm behind my back. He told me I had to make $200 the next night.” More frightened of Jason than of the strange men, Marie obeyed, “and by the end of that trip, I was what you’d call owned.”

Marie worked for Jason for nearly two years. She traveled in the luxury convoys from Toronto to Ottawa to Calgary to Vancouver and back, working the streets at rates that ranged from $50 to $120, depending on the service. Marie was expected to reach a quota of $300 each night. She gave all the money to Jason, who searched her to make sure she wasn’t stashing any. In return, she received a place to sleep, fast-food meals, cigarettes, five or six outfits and one pair of shoes.

Her lip curls as she describes the men she serviced: “School kids, college students, a lot of married men, businessmen in three-piece suits, guys with fantasies they didn’t want to play out with their wives. I’ve had guns held to my head, knives on me, I’ve been beaten by them,” she says. “When I was out there, I became a different personality, hard and cold. I’d say, ‘If you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time.’ I did a lot of stealing. I became violent; if a girl got in my face, my hands went out, and I didn’t care if I broke her teeth. I’d rather be in the ground than live that way again.”

Months went by, and Rachel, obsessed with the fate of Marie, started cruising the Halifax strolls late at night, searching, not knowing if Marie was near or thousands of kilometers away. Other nights, she stayed home for fear that she’d miss a precious collect call. Once, Marie called to ask for a plane ticket home from Vancouver. She never picked it up.

Marie’s pimp stretched out a wire coat hanger, put on thick gloves and heated it one the stove. For 36 hours he periodically whipped Marie with the coat hanger. “My skin split. Blood was spraying and it was like a horror movie.”

Marie says she tried to escape several times but was caught by Jason or other pimps and beaten badly enough to be admitted to hospital. After one botched escape, Jason drove her in silence back to North Preston, where he stretched out a wire coat hanger, put on thick gloves and heated it one the stove. “He told me to take my clothes off. I wouldn’t, so he punched me so hard he lifted me off the ground. Then, he held me on the floor and ripped them off.” For 36 hours, Jason periodically whipped Marie with the coat hanger. “My skin split. Blood was spraying and it was like a horror movie,” she says. Lifting up the sleeve of her T-shirt, she shows skin that is a mass of crisscrossing lines where the welts turned into permanent white scar tissue. Finally, Marie snapped and turned on Jason, kicking, screaming, punching. When he backed off, she realized that he was not indestructible. Pretending to be tamed, she cooperated with him long enough to win his trust again. Then, back in Toronto, Marie, now 17, took a younger girl she was supposed to be breaking in and hailed a cab for the train station. When her parents met her in Halifax, it was the first time they’d seen her in 18 months.

Eight months later, while supported by relatives, Marie gave birth to Jason’s daughter and named her Jenny. She had kept in touch with friends from North Preston, and eventually, Jason found out about the birth. He sent roses and champagne, and promised that, if Marie came back to him, they would be a family. Unable to fit herself and her black daughter into her parents’ lifestyle, inured to life in the pimping community and perhaps considering herself beyond redemption, Marie believed Jason’s promise and returned to him.

Within a week, he took her back to Toronto, beat her and put her out on the streets while he and other younger girls watched Jenny in the hotel room. But Marie stole money from another prostitute to buy a plane ticket, smuggled Jenny out of the hotel and flew east, to freedom. For reasons best known to himself but perhaps related to Marie’s spirit, her scars or both, Jason chose not to pursue her. He called from time to time, asking after Jenny; then, when the police action heated up, he was arrested and jailed.

But other pimps have filled his shoes, and other girls have replaced Marie.

Girls like Alexandra Gibson who, at 16, the daughter of a homemaker and a doctor, slower academically than her siblings, too tall and athletic for boys in her peer group, fell in love with a handsome, young North Preston man named Allen. When recently seen lounging against a Halifax streetlight, Alexandra said she and Allen planned to marry soon. As for her fiance’s history of violent assaults against prostitutes: “Allen tells me I’m different, that he’d never hurt me. We love each other. I work the streets for us, to pay for things for us.”

Girls like Hillary Millhouse, who was recruited to the life at age 15. Her mother, Joan Millhouse, a corporate manager, says: “I used to think prostitutes are kids that have problems, who are not living at home. Now, I know it can happen to anybody at all.”

Girls like Kelly Lynn Wilneff, 17, who came forward to testify against Kevin Allen Whynder on a charge of assault with a weapon. In February 1993, Kelly was shot dead. Whynder now awaits trial on a murder charge.

The woods are still full of wild animals.

Two years ago, Marie finished grade 12 and she says she plans, some year, to go to college. Unlike most girls who repeatedly try and fail to get off the streets, Marie, now 24 and living on welfare with support from her parents, says she has only once gone back to prostitution — desperate to pay some bills, she hired herself out to an escort service. All the same, she has had a second baby with another North Preston man who has been jailed for living off the proceeds of prostitution. Although she and her two children are welcome in the Harnish home, she feels isolated from her peers and shunned by her siblings.

People sometimes ask how she can bear to have anything to do with North Preston men after being pimped by one. “I don’t resent black men,” she responds. “I do have a problem with white men. One hundred percent of the Johns were white — men who looked like my father, my brother, my cousins. They all knew what was going on, but no one tried to help. They only wanted one thing.

I don’t want to waste time being bitter about the pimps, because then they would have wrecked my whole life and not just part of it. Anyway, my nightmares are not about Jason beating me. They’re about old dirty men touching me, smiling at me, saying I’ve got $100 to do it. Thinking about that really disgusts me. It was one black man who did it to me, but thousands of white men.”

Despite the crackdown, uncounted numbers of young girls are still on Canada’s streets under North Preston’s domain. Of the more than 50 pimps who were arrested, many have already served their terms, while others are due to be released soon. Unqualified for any honest work beyond flipping burgers, the released men are unlikely to be scanning the want ads. “They were making $2,500 a week tax free,” Marie shrugs. “Think they’re not going back into it?”

Copyright © 1994 Deborah Jones

Originally published in Chatelaine magazine, November 1994

Epilogue, November, 2013: North Preston’s pimping industry continues, and Canadian police continue to launch periodic crackdowns.

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