Joint Guelph-Waterloo human trafficking task force takes a more 'aggressive approach'

·3 min read

Dedicated officers of Waterloo Region and Guelph police said increased government support puts them in a better position to protect human trafficking victims.

“Everything aligned perfectly, so we definitely have the support and resources that we need to succeed,” said a Guelph officer.

Given the nature of their work, the investigators in this story operate covertly at times and therefore won’t be identified by name.

A dedicated Waterloo-Guelph joint human trafficking unit launched at the end of October this year, made up of two Waterloo Region police officers, one Guelph Police Service investigator and a human trafficking crisis intervention counsellor from Victim Services.

The new task force is funded through a grant of $537,460, provided by the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Leadership at both police and victim services “all stepped up and said that within our two areas, we need a little bit more of an aggressive approach,” the Guelph officer said.

As the Times has previously reported, the 401 highway is a major stop for human traffickers. The highway, which goes through part of the region and runs just a few kilometres south of Guelph, creates “easy access” for sex traffickers, a Waterloo Region officer in the unit said.

Convicted predators come from surrounding areas as well as from Cambridge and Waterloo, the officers said. There’s a level of organization to the crimes, which can happen at any hotel or Airbnb in the region, the Guelph officer said.

The crime of human trafficking and their related factors are “fuelled by greed,” the Waterloo officer said.

Between July to September, requests for support from local victims of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking at the Sexual Assault Support Centre Waterloo Region climbed 27 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Around 58 per cent of survivors in the centre’s anti-human-trafficking program are between the ages of 12 and 18, the executive director previously told the Times.

“Within Canada, it's usually young, vulnerable women,” she said.

A commonality between victims is “lack of supports, maybe family life isn’t in the best situation,” the WRPS officer noted.

“I’ve seen all different socioeconomic classes involved in this demographic,” the Guelph officer said.

Last year, Waterloo Region Police reported 90 human trafficking related investigations, with 40 criminal charges laid.

Arrests this year have kept “steady,” said the Guelph officer, adding, while the task force has more resources to reach victims, their approach is still centred on the sexually exploited.

“The safety of the victim is a big priority in any investigation, so it doesn't always reflect back on the amount of arrests,” he explained.

Now with support services “embedded” in the unit, human trafficking victims “get that wraparound support, right off the bat,” he added. The team offers investigative and counselling services, along with services like emergency housing, medical and basic supplies. A therapy dog is also available, provided by St. John Ambulance.

The new team, while still in its early stages, feels more prepared, despite some “growing pains,” the Guelph officer said.

“We're pretty confident in our abilities to represent the victim appropriately. There's just a lot more people involved within the team, a lot more community partners. So I think that's what we're figuring out right now.”

Ultimately, the survivors also have to weigh the pros and cons of coming to the police.

There’s an element of fear involved in leaving their situation, the officer added.

“The challenges are ... having them trust the support services or trust police enough, or have faith in the system,” the WRPS officer echoed.

Dial 1-800-222-8477 to report human trafficking in the Waterloo Region, and 1-833-900-1010 for the Ontario-wide hotline. If there is immediate danger, call 911.

Swikar Oli, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times