By Bruce Corcoran
Provincial officials stress that combating human trafficking takes the eyes and ears of everyone in a community.
The Ontario government recently announced new legislation and amendments to existing legislation to augment the province’s $307-million anti-human trafficking strategy, which launched a year ago.
Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, and Rick Nicholls, MPP Chatham-Kent Leamington, spoke to reporters this week about human trafficking in our area. Kate do Forno, executive director of Chatham Kent Victim Services, and Const. Meredith Rota of the Chatham-Kent Police Service, also sat in on the conversation.
Nicholls has held several human trafficking town hall meetings and seminars in his riding over the years.
He said the Highway 401 corridor remains a big pipeline for human trafficking.
“This is a form of modern-day slavery,” he said. “I’ve always advocated for strong actions against human trafficking and for efforts to help survivors to reintegrate into the community.”
MacLeod called human trafficking a “scourge” in Ontario.
“It happens to girls as young as 11. They get identified and groomed and moved into this horrific type of activity,” she said.
As the minister responsible for tourism, MacLeod said efforts have been underway in recent years to work with employees and managers in the hospitality sector to help spot potential victims of human traffickers, or the perpetrators.
“It’s happening in every single hotel,” MacLeod said. “Some of these victims are hidden. But we’ve been able to work with the sector to help identify what a victim, what a perpetrator, may look like.”
do Forno said human trafficking happens right here in Chatham-Kent.
Rota agreed, adding 16 charges related to human trafficking were laid here last year alone.
“We know it’s happening in the corners of our communities,” do Forno said. “It’s also imperative that we get to victims as soon as possible. The priority is to wrap services around individuals who have experienced human trafficking.”
That wrapping is intended to help break the trauma bond that forms between the victim and their trafficker. The control is strong, and it can take multiple efforts for victims to get free from the clutches of their traffickers.
do Forno said there is usually something a trafficker has to hold over the head of the victim. Often it is drugs and addiction. The trafficker is also the pusher.
With two border crossing an hour or less away, and sandwiched between larger urban centres, Chatham-Kent is a prime location for human trafficking, Rota said.
“In Chatham-Kent, human trafficking is here in many different ways. From a domestic abuse standpoint and transient sex trade workers, it’s here. And often, we have just one shot to speak to a suspected victim,” she said.
Rota said it does take a community to defend against human trafficking. A strong starting point is in the hospitality industry, in restaurants and hotels and motels.
“They are our eyes and ears. We have issued warning sign checklists for hotel staff. They’re looking out for these signs,” she said.
Hospitality staff are being encouraged to err on the side of caution and to call authorities if they suspect something is amiss, Rota said.
MacLeod said some signs are quite obvious.
“If you see a young girl with an older man and she looks frightened, that’s an alert sign. If you see a young girl that might be withdrawing and moving away from her friends and doing things a little different, that can be a sign,” she said.
MacLeod said the legislation, if passed would provide support for long-term provincial response to human trafficking and strengthen the ability of children’s aid society’s and law enforcement to protect children.