A Toronto pimp who used fear and a prison-like atmosphere to control his victims faces the prospect of living the rest of his life behind bars because of a precedent-setting court decision.

In 2014, Tyrone Burton became the first person in Toronto convicted of human trafficking. On Tuesday, a judge ruled Burton's offences were serious and violent enough to meet the threshold for the first step in being named a dangerous offender — a rare designation reserved for Canada's most notorious criminals, such as murderer and rapist Paul Bernardo and serial killer Clifford Olson.

"Up until today, there had been no other examples where human trafficking could anchor a dangerous offender application," said Daniel Brown, Toronto director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association.

It's a first in Ontario, and Brown wasn't able to find any other examples in Canada.

"Dangerous offender designations are very rare in Canada for good reason," he said. "There's a very high threshold before a judge will lock somebody up for an indeterminate amount of time."

Sex and hell

Burton

In 2014, Tyrone Burton became first man in Toronto convicted of human trafficking since it was written into the Criminal Code in 2005. (Toronto Police Services)

Ontario Court Justice Mara Greene read aloud her written decision while Burton watched, sometimes holding his head in his hands.

Her words held up a mirror to an ugly week for two teenage girls who came to Toronto for the lure of parties, easy money and drugs. Their identities are protected under a publication ban.

Burton promised one of the girls a good life, protection and love. He told her he was her boyfriend. She started working as a prostitute within 24 hours of their meeting. Her friend soon arrived to try to protect her, and got caught in the mire.

This was an atmosphere of "control and fear," wrote Greene.

She described what court heard in testimony from the women during the previous trial: that Burton forced them to work as prostitutes without condoms, and took the money. He controlled when and how much they ate or drank, took their passports, made them clean his house, kiss his ring, call him "daddy" and have sex with him whenever he wanted — even when they were too tired or ill from having sex with clients all day.

One of the women became seriously ill with stomach problems. She told the court that once she wanted to go to the hotel canteen to get an orange juice, but Burton wouldn't let her leave to get it until she slept with one more client.

After a few terrifying days, a client helped the pair escape and Burton was eventually arrested.

An Ontario 1st

​​HUMAN TRAFFICKING BY THE NUMBERS

One of the most commonly cited statistics on human trafficking comes from the International Labour Office, which estimates that 20.9 million people were forced into labour globally at any given time between 2002 and 2011. ​

The crime was written into the Criminal Code of Canada in 2005, but remains difficult to prosecute.

RCMP records show there were just 85 convictions for human trafficking in Canada as of January 2015. 

Greene's decision explains why Burton's offences pass the test for a "personal injury offence."

She said the conviction met the criteria of an indictable offence involving "the use or attempted use of violence against another person," or "conduct endangering or likely to endanger the life of safety of another person or inflicting or likely to inflict severe psychological damage upon another person, where the offender could receive a sentence of 10 years imprisonment or more."

Deeming a conviction as a personal injury offence is the first step toward an application for a dangerous offender designation. The next step is an application to assess Burton's criminal history as a whole. Court time has been set aside next week to address that question.

Burton has faced a long list of prostitution-related charges dating back to 2003.

On Sept. 18, 2007, he was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to three years in prison.

He was first arrested for this current human trafficking case in December 2012. While Tuesday's ruling opens the door to a more serious sentence, the support worker who has been helping his two victims says the decision is a mixed victory.

Starting over

"I think they just want it over. I think they just want it done," said Michele Anderson, a human trafficking expert with Covenant House. "It's a long process."

Dangerous offender applications can take months, even years, to complete.

At this point, the victims have had to tell their story three times (to police, during the trial and for the purposes of the sentencing hearing).

They feel their lives are on hold until they hear a final decision, and the court process brings them right back to the trauma.

"They start to take those first steps to achieve their hopes and their dreams. And then they have to go and testify... And then they have to relive everything that they went through," Anderson said.

"And they have to provide such detail in court that it takes them back to a really horrible nightmare that they really don't want to have to revisit."

Anderson described how one of the women had successfully enrolled in college to study social sciences, but had to leave her classes after she received the subpoena to testify.

But they still haven't given up on their goals: each woman plans to study social sciences to become support workers and, in turn, help survivors of human trafficking.

The reporter can be contacted at marion.warnica@cbc.ca