In February, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Anti-Human Trafficking (AHT) Investigation Coordination Unit hired Dr. Olsen Harper, a member of the Lac Seul First Nation, to identify human trafficking in northwest Ontario and its impact on Indigenous individuals and communities.
Det. Staff Sgt. Andrew Taylor of the OPP's Anti-Human Trafficking Unit said human trafficking is an underreported criminal activity due to a certain amount of cultural stigma surrounding the activity itself and also a lack of trust between the criminal justice system, the police and Indigenous members of the community.
The idea is to bridge that gap so that people feel they are not providing information directly to the police, but their story can be used to prevent this activity in the future, Taylor said.
Harper will consult with northern Indigenous communities and organizations in urban centers to collect information from the public, police and survivors to identify sexually exploitative human trafficking, Taylor said.
Taylor adds that the evidence collected from the research will help to enhance training and coordination of resources to reduce human trafficking.
“If you look at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, we identified that there were gaps in information between what was in the inquiry and what we knew as police officers in terms of human trafficking in northwest Ontario, in particular, in Indigenous communities,” Taylor said.
Taylor said human trafficking is generally underreported because victims do not believe themselves to be victims.
“Human trafficking exploits people who are already somewhat marginalized or vulnerable within the community, that is how they are exploited by people who are interested in trafficking them,” Taylor said. “That segment of the population has a difficult time accessing or coming to report to police.”
On February 22, the Ontario government introduced the Combatting Human Trafficking Act, new legislation and amendments to existing legislation to build upon the province's $307 million Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy.
The proposed changes include two new acts, the Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy Act, 2021 and the Accommodation Sector Registration of Guests Act, 2021. As well as amendments to the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017 and the Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking Act, 2017.
The changes would support the government's response to human trafficking in a number of ways including strengthening the ability of children's aid societies and law enforcement, supporting more survivors in obtaining restraining orders against traffickers, with specific consideration for Indigenous survivors and providing law enforcement with more tools to locate victims and charge traffickers.
According to the government of Canada, 97 per cent of human trafficking victims were women and girls, two-third of human trafficking incidents between 2009-2019 were reported in Ontario and 45 per cent of human trafficking victims were between the ages of 18 and 24.
Taylor said victims are generally recruited at a young age because they are vulnerable and can easily be groomed.
Taylor describes human trafficking as a spectrum that varies from region to province and territory because of its subtle nuances, a factor that makes reporting it difficult and the reason research is important.
“When those people return to their community, there’s a significant amount of trauma that the community needs to assist that person through, particularly in small communities where those resources aren’t there and that’s why prevention is our main goal,” Taylor said.
Some questions Taylor said they are looking to answer are: “What are the issues surrounding youth being recruited into human trafficking? What are the issues that surround those youth being trafficked? Is there a social services or other government manner to make that scenario less likely to occur? What does the trafficking look like? How does law enforcement dispute the act?”
Taylor said Harper will conduct her research for a year and then prepare a report to provide the OPP with evidence and trends about human trafficking in northwestern Ontario.
“We’ll be looking at coming up with solutions to what she’s found and then I suspect we will get answers to some questions, but probably also end up with more questions,” Taylor said.
Taylor said Harper has been in contact with many communities and there has been a lot of interest in providing information to help expand the research.
“The police as an agent of communities are only as strong as the engagement level of those communities,” Taylor said. “This is not one of those problems that is only a police issue, it requires community engagement to actually get to the roots of those issues and move past them.”
Taylor said it will be a long process to implement programming to help combat human trafficking in northwestern Ontario as there will be a period of consultation and the possibility of returning to those communities to ask them what the next step should be.
“As long as you have individuals who are willing to exploit someone, individuals who are vulnerable, and then individuals who are willing to purchase sexual services from somebody who’s exploited, I don’t know that we’re going to see an end date unfortunately,” Taylor said.
Natali Trivuncic, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times