With the highest number of human trafficking cases in Canada, the province of Ontario has been shifting its strategy to a more victim-centred approach.
WARNING: This article contains details some may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
This is the second part of our Journey to Justice series, which looks at how Ontario’s strategy to combat human trafficking has changed and what work is still needed.
While Ontario represented 29 per cent of all violent crime reported in Canada in 2019, the province accounted for over 60 per cent of Canada’s human trafficking cases, according to Statistics Canada’s Trafficking in persons in Canada, 2019 report.
“Based on the data that we have to date, the vast majority of human trafficking cases that we identified in Canada are sex trafficking cases,” said Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT).
Drydyk said through the pandemic, the issue of sex trafficking has become more prevalent, with the number of cases increasing.
While Ontario does have the highest number of human trafficking cases, it is also investing the most money. In 2020 the province announced it would invest $307 million from 2020 to 2025 on a new anti-human trafficking strategy.
“Ontario is the leader because the Ontario government signalled to the rest of the country that they plan to lead in this space, that we do not want trafficking of children or anyone in our province, and that we’re going to make that really difficult on traffickers to do here,” said Jennifer Richardson, director of the provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office.
“We passed the Combating Human Trafficking Act, which again is the first in Canada that actually mandates the province to maintain the human trafficking strategy.”
Richardson said their current strategy is focused on educating children and preventing child sex trafficking, with the average age of recruitment being just 13 years old.
The province has stated that the latest strategy involved input from survivors, Indigenous communities, organizations, law enforcement and front-line service providers.
“I thought I was making a responsible decision by getting myself out of this bad situation I was in and going to a trusted, old adult.”
Kyra, now in her late 20s, first met her trafficker when she was 12 years old in an after-school program in a city in southwest Ontario. Being almost 40 years older than her, when she became homeless she thought he was a person she could trust to help.
“He had drugged me one night, and he had gone out, and when he came back, I woke up to him taking my clothes off, and he ended up raping me that night,” Kyra remembered.
“He started giving me as gifts to his friends who were also older, and he would bring in his friends to rape me and say that I was their birthday present, and I think that was kind of a test for him to see how I would react.”
Kyra said her trafficker manipulated her to think that he was trying to help her earn a living, but he kept all of the money.
“He would still say that he cared about me and that so many women do this, and that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and that so many women have sex to earn their keep and that’s what I had to do because that he was housing me and he was providing you with food and basic necessities.”
Kyra was raped and trafficked when she was 17, but it would take her eight years to gain the courage she needed to report the abuse.
Working with Courage for Freedom (CFF) and London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC), Kyra, whose name Global News has changed to protect her safety, said the reporting process was easier than expected.
CFF has a relationship with police officers trained to deal with survivors, and instead of reporting at the police station, they were able to arrange for an officer to come to their office, where Kyra felt safe.
“He just showed up in normal clothes and he was a normal guy and we just chatted and had some small talk to get to know each other before starting into the interview. That was helpful because it just made me feel like this isn’t someone who is just an officer that I need to be intimidated by,” Kyra said.
“I was told so many times that that was such an unorthodox thing to have happened.
“It’s extremely difficult to report when you have these blank spots in your memory because it’s hard to get someone to believe you when you can’t give explicit details or when you say, ‘I don’t remember.’”
Andrew Taylor, detective staff sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) anti-human trafficking unit said part of their strategy is to work with agencies that support survivors.
“The OPP has established a program of victim-centred service specialists across the OPP, and they assist in all of that sort of care navigation,” Taylor said.
Kyra notes that because of advocacy from CFF, the initial process of coming forward was great, but it did not last.
Late last year she found out her trafficker was being released on bail into the same neighbourhood she lived in with her children. She said the guarantor willing to vouch for his release lived within the same neighbourhood as her.
“That was extremely worrisome to me because I moved out of my hometown to the city to get away from this person, and then I go and report to police and the system I thought was there to keep me safe and it was not doing that.”
Kyra said she spoke to police about this issue and there was little they could do. She said an officer even suggested she be the one to move.
“I got an ‘Oh, we messed up, it’s too late now.’”
After news her trafficker was getting released into the community came out, Kyra said there was public outcry that led to his guarantor backing out and her trafficker remaining in jail.
“The supports dry up, it’s really hard and advocates and survivors will tell you this repeatedly,” said Kelly Franklin, founder and chief executive director of CFF.
“The court system needs to remember that although the system is set up a certain way for their protocols and procedures, it is a terrifying experience for a survivor and that we owe, especially these young people that we have failed to protect, we owe them better.”
A ‘victim-centred’ approach to policing
For Taylor, when a victim of human trafficking comes forward, it’s the start of a long “journey towards a prosecution” with the victim top of mind.
“Our biggest barrier is actually obtaining a statement from a victim who is highly traumatized.”
Taylor says to support survivors of human trafficking on their journey, police make sure they have access to food, housing and other services.
“Our goal is actually to remove people from exploitive situations, and that has to be the primary goal,” Taylor said.
According to the Statistics Canada Trafficking in Persons in Canada report in 2018, 45 per cent of cases that were successfully linked to an incident of police-reported human trafficking did not involve any charges of human trafficking.
“It is very different from other criminal offences, which are a single act in time where that individual is involved in something that is highly traumatic, but it has a very finite period where they’re being traumatized. These are individuals who are traumatized for a much longer pronounced period of time, and that trauma infiltrates every aspect of their life,” Taylor said.
Despite challenges, Taylor notes there is change with further funding from the Ontario government in 2020. The human trafficking investigation team has been expanding with the launch of the Joint Forces Strategy.
Taylor notes there are now officers training to address human trafficking cases in every region, with partnerships with survivor support agencies and at least 20 municipalities.
“Instead of working in silos, we are working across jurisdictions,” Taylor said.
“It means that if the Kingston officer identifies a victim and now that individual is being exploited in London, it is a much more seamless police response, and that is our focus, and that is why those inputs were made.”
Though officers are more focused on relationship-building and creating trust with victims, agencies that work with survivors still note a general distrust in the justice system.
Jennifer Dunn, executive director of LAWC, notes that during the last fiscal year they support 820 trafficked women and girls.
“I don’t have a percentage of who’s reported for you, but I can tell you it’s not even close to the 820.”
When asked, representatives for both the LAWC and CFF, which works to eradicate the selling of children in Canada, agreed that conviction rates and police statistics represent less than half of the total number of survivors they help.
Changes in the Ontario court system
In 2016, the Ministry of the Attorney General started to look at a different way to prosecute human trafficking cases.
“We formed for the first time a team of dedicated Crowns in Ontario who prosecute only human trafficking matters and other offences related to the sex trade,” said Susan Orlando, provincial co-ordinator of Ontario’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Team.
“That was the first time that we had sort of specialists in this area, there were Crowns who were doing a large volume of these cases in their local offices, but this was the first time that we’ve dedicated Crowns to doing solely this kind of work.”
What started as six Crown attorneys dedicated to human trafficking matters has since grown to 54.
Orlando said specializing allowed Crowns to be more skilled in fighting human trafficking cases and that there is at least one Crown in every office in the province focused on human trafficking.
“We developed this enhanced prosecution model which involves supporting the complainants through the court process, working collaboratively with police, community service providers, and forming strong cases around the victims that involve the collection of evidence that is not related solely to the victim.”
Survivors also have supports in place to help throughout the court process, including a victim-witness assistance program, the option of testifying on tape, and therapy dogs.
When it comes to supports, agencies that work with survivors say there has been a lot of progress but more is still needed.
Dunn said while supports for survivors are increasing, much of the system is still reliant on victim testimony, making them relive their trauma in front of their trafficker.
“Imagine sitting in front of somebody who has done this to you, but also knows your every look, every facial expression, everything about you, because you’ve been with each other for a long time. That would be unbelievably difficult and unbelievably traumatizing,” Dunn said.
The impact on Indigenous women and girls
Indigenous women and girls are among those most at risk when it comes to sex trafficking in Canada.
A 2016 Public Safety Report released statistics that indicate that while Indigenous women make up only four per cent of the Canadian population, they make up roughly 50 per cent of trafficking victims. This number is one the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) says still holds up six years later.
“Indigenous women are overrepresented due to the colonial exploitation of Indigenous women and girls in Canada. This includes lack of acknowledgment from the Canadian government, on not only the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in the human trafficking populations but colonization as a key contributor to the overrepresentation,” said Bethany Tremblay, interim administrator, NWAC Wabanaki Resiliency Lodge.
Tremblay attributed the overrepresentation to the “intergenerational trauma” Indigenous people have experienced as a result of colonization.
In 2020 the province launched the Anti-Human Trafficking Indigenous-led Initiatives Fund to combat the issue.
“Which is money that was put aside from the overall fund that only Indigenous communities could apply for that money or Indigenous organizations to design programming for Indigenous folks who are trafficked, which again, we’ve seen really good outcomes in that space,” Richardson said.
Whether it’s dealing with the court system or dealing with police, Tremblay said there are clear biases in a system that was not designed to treat trafficking victims fairly.
“Men are being favoured by a system that was built for and by men. I found it disturbing, yet not surprising at the same time, in my research that there’s so much information on the victims and very little on the perpetrators.”
To help address this issue, Taylor notes the OPP is in the process of hiring an independent Indigenous researcher to help it improve as well as working with First Nations officers to investigate cases.
“We wanted to bridge that trust divide between the police and the Indigenous community so that the police could have a better understanding and a more fulsome understanding of what was going on in northwest Ontario,” Taylor said.
Not unlike other organizations that help survivors, Tremblay said less than half of the survivors they work with actually go through the formal reporting process.
“The survivors I have had a privilege of supporting and advocating for over the years have all had a disadvantage when they are women, two-spirit and/or gender diverse; add race to that equation and it’s even more difficult to seek the justice and restitution they deserve,” she said.
For Tremblay there is hope, but only if there is change on both the government level and the community level. She said people need to continue learning about what has happened in the past and looking at how that is impacting things in the present day.
“We deserve better, we absolutely deserve better, and I am hopeful that we can we can do better,” she said.
“The fact that we are now recognizing the overrepresentation and it’s being spoken of and these movements are making headway, that is a start in the right direction.”
If you are in need of assistance you can contact the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010 to get connected to resources or ask to speak to a lawyer to review your options.
People can also contact the London Abused Women’s Centre at 519-432-2204, Courage for Freedom at 519-615-2292 or the Abused Women’s Helpline at 519-642-3000.