TORONTO - The stench of men still haunts Tania Fiolleau 15 years later as she recalls the first day she worked as a prostitute in downtown Vancouver.
She was 25 in 1996 and escaping an abusive husband who threatened her with a nearly five-year custody battle in court. She was turned down from legal aid during a time when she was staying at a battered women’s shelter with her two sons and had to come up with money to protect herself and her children from “a very obscene future,” she said.
“I remember going home and showering and I couldn’t wash the filth off me,” Fiolleau said. “I was looking at a paper for employment and I see this ad that says, ‘Female owned and operated, safe work environment, earn up to $1,500 a day.’ I had no clue.”
She quickly learned that working the streets and in body rub parlours easily led to exploitation, even though the money was good. But most of it was going to pay her $400,000 court fees.
To earn the money she needed, Fiolleau had to move up the ranks fast and accelerated to the position of madam — who oversees operations of brothels.
Now, at 40, she’s quit sex work and is advocating for its demise.
She’s heading across the country with Miss Canada Tara Teng to bring awareness to human trafficking by telling her story in their Ignite the Road to Justice campaign.
The 10-major city tour stops in Toronto Sept. 1 to 4.
“I would rather just change my name and move and have nobody know what I did but the reason I’m doing this is because God called me to do it and he wants me to educate people and let them know what really goes on,” Fiolleau said. “In my mind when I was a madam, I thought, they’re working for me. I’m keeping them safe. But I didn’t understand how damaging the industry was until I got out. There are days where I am dreading going on this tour when I have to talk about my testimony in 10 cities, over and over again, and re-trigger my trauma...how many times a day my flesh was purchased.”
Teng, a 22-year-old student at Trinity Western University, a Christian school in Langley, B.C., was crowned Miss Canada last January and has vowed to make human trafficking her crusade.
“I found out one of my neighbours in the community down a few houses from me — her daughter was trafficked at 14 years old — and friends of mine that I already knew, they had cousins and sisters that had been trafficked,” Teng said. “This wasn’t some distant problem anymore.”
She recently travelled to the slums of Thailand and Cambodia, hearing stories from women and young girls who were sold by their families.
“We spent a lot of time in red light districts and some of these bars and brothels and heard their stories,” Teng said. “They’re from Moldova, thinking they’re accepting a job in Moscow. They end up in Turkey for three months where they’re being broken in and from there, they go to Thailand.”
These children are being sold as young as three or four years old, shed said. In Canada, average age of victim is around 13.
Those who are prostituted tend to come from broken homes — much like she did, recalled Fiolleau.
She ran away from her foster home at the age of 11. Her father was abusive. She ended up marrying a man very much like him. And when she began to sell her body, her husband and his lawyer hired a private investigator who found out she was working at a brothel and tried to use it against her in court.
By that time, she had hit rock bottom and begged God if he gave her custody of her children, she’d devote her life to stop prostitution.
“The system failed me again. I wasn’t being judged as a loving mother, trying to protect her children. I was being judged as a prostitute,” Fiolleau said. “I got custody. It took the judge nine months to render its decision and it went on for four and a half years. My court case set a precedent.”
For years, she was a madam, running four brothels in downtown Vancouver and outside the city — two of which were legal body rub parlours and the other two were underground.
The illegal establishments were penthouses where men of all descriptions — from priests and pastors to politicians and professional athletes playing in the NHL and the NFL — would be able to enter with discretion. At one point, she had roughly 500 girls working for her, she said.
“The industry chips away at your soul and I became emotionally numb,” Fiolleau said. “I just didn’t care. Near the end, I had a bad reputation because I was treating them as if they were in a boot camp. I’d see the girls a decade later but they looked 40 years older. Every girl said, ‘What else am I going to do? I can’t go get a regular job and put on my resume I was a hooker.’”
And the work was addictive.
In 2001, Fiolleau left the business after getting custody of her sons, who are now 20 and 16, but she went back to the madam job for a year.
“It’s hard with the economy. I could get one phone call from a john and I could make $1,000 right now,” she said. “When you see a girl and she’s walking down the street and she’s got her long hair extensions, her big boots and Louis Vuitton bag, she might look happy but if she’s not putting on that fabricated smile and acting like she’s all into it, she’s not getting her money then she might get beat by a pimp. They get a false sense of empowerment. Eventually, they just become the walking dead.”
Teng is pushing for a national strategy to combat human trafficking in Canada. She met Prime Minister Stephen Harper last October and discussed the idea with him.
“We need to see these people not as prostitutes but prostituted,” she said. “(As many as) 98% of the women don’t want to be in the industry and it’s the fastest growing industry in the world.