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review: non-fiction

Like most of us, Benjamin Perrin never suspected it happened here.

Human trafficking, he assumed, was "a tragedy confined to distant lands" - a tragedy that moved Perrin, of the University of British Columbia's faculty of law, to travel to Cambodia to help victims of the sex trade there. The U.S. State Department honoured him as a "hero acting to end modern-day slavery."

But when he heard of a case of commercial sex trafficking in his hometown of Calgary, not far from where he went for burgers and milkshakes as a child, he could not ignore the exploitation in his own country. Invisible Chains is the powerful result of his recent years of research and activism.

The stories he documents are heartbreaking: a 14-year-old from Ontario sold for sex on Craigslist; young women from the war-torn Congo and Colombia trafficked to brothels and massage parlours in Canada; a 21-year-old from Alberta who went missing in Las Vegas in 2006.

Meanwhile, the men who exploit them pull in enormous profits. As an American FBI agent once told me: "The sex trade is the new drug trade." Criminals realized that they can make a lot more money with a lot less risk of capture or serious jail time trafficking people instead of drugs.

Perrin cites a report from Canada's Criminal Intelligence Service that estimates domestic sex traffickers earn an average of $280,000 annually from every victim under their control. He details the frightening expansion of a Nova Scotia street gang named North Preston's Finest that has spread its tentacles to Ontario and Western Canada, competing with the bikers for control of the domestic sex-trafficking trade.

Perrin filed more than 40 access-to-information requests to pry loose revealing police and government reports. He uses graphic case studies to show the multitude of reasons that can push women into the sex trade and the psychological ploys and physical violence the traffickers use to keep them there.

Where Invisible Chains excels is in Perrin's systematic exposé of how "vulnerable women and children pay the price" for what he correctly terms Canada's "disgraceful" response to the trafficking nightmare, especially compared with other Western countries.

Belgium has reported more than 1,200 human-trafficking cases since 2007 and secured more than 200 convictions; it also has about 5,000 police specialists trained to handle the crime. In the U.S., there are tough if not always well-enforced federal laws on the books, co-ordinated anti-trafficking task forces and a special FBI squad that goes after pimps and has rescued more than 1,000 prostituted children.

But in Canada, human trafficking was not even a criminal offence until 2005. When the United Nations recently asked Canada for statistics on arrests and convictions, Perrin reports that no one in Ottawa knew where to even start looking. So he himself dug up the numbers by canvassing police and justice officials across the country - and the results are pitiful.

From April, 2007, to April, 2009, only about 30 people were charged with human trafficking in Canada; just five have been convicted to date. And their sentences amount to what Perrin aptly calls "a joke."

One man from Ontario who earned at least $400,000 from marketing one girl for sex got three years - and that was harsh by Canadian standards. After his pretrial custody time was factored in, a Montreal man in 2008 got a week in jail, Another trafficker who claimed he had turned his life around by writing poems in jail while awaiting trial was sentenced to just one day.

Perrin writes in a clear and thoughtful manner, burdened by neither academic jargon nor overwrought emotion. But the structure of the book may not appeal to everyone. Chapters are broken up into episodic nuggets with catchy headlines every couple of pages. For some readers, that makes for useful guidebook to the issues; for others, it can feel like the Coles Notes version of a very good book. The book does not aim for an overall narrative arc: Young women, police officers and activists make very powerful cameo appearances, but we seldom get to see them grow and develop as characters.

But that was not Perrin's goal. The mission of the academic, activist and author is to get you outraged - and he succeeds brilliantly. Invisible Chains ends with a passionate plea to build "a new underground railroad" so that Canada becomes a haven for the victims of trafficking, not their exploiters.

Perrin's commitment and convictions are inspiring. The invisible chains he seeks to break are invisible only because we choose not to see them. He wants us to open our eyes to the modern-day slavery all around us - and his book is just the call to action that Canada needs.

Investigative journalist Julian Sher has written about child exploitation for The Globe and Mail, Maclean's and The New York Times. His next book, Somebody's Daughter: The Hidden Story of Prostituted Children in America, will be published in January.

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