Human trafficking strategy helping girls being moved along Highway 401 corridor
Tuesday is the 2nd annual National Human Trafficking Awareness Day
Over the past six years, 267 victims of human trafficking have sought support through the Hope Found Project in Ottawa, a group that helps those who've been or who are being trafficked.
Only two of those survivors were from outside Canada.
Human and sex trafficking is a growing domestic concern according to advocates who work with survivors, and in Ontario, the 401 corridor between Windsor and the Quebec border is a common route for traffickers to transport young girls between communities, forced to sell sex.
Truckers, hotel managers and school boards are all being called upon to help fight the problem.
"This is in our communities. Ontario is a major hub," said Cynthia Bland, executive director of Voice Found, a survivor-led organization and resource for victims of sexual abuse.
"If somebody is trying to leave their trafficking situation … we'll help them with safety planning."
She said most of the people who seek help are girls and young women — many between the ages 12 and 19. They come from our own high schools and communities, she said.
Feb. 22 marks the second annual National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
"Often we're asked what makes someone vulnerable to being trafficked," said Bland. "The largest vulnerability is ignorance to the issue, not really understanding what it is."
Human trafficking involves recruiting, transporting, transferring or harbouring a person, or exercising control or influence for the purpose of exploiting them. According to Statistics Canada, the type of trafficking that is "most detected" by authorities is sexual exploitation.
A report from the federal department released last year showed a growing increase in police-reported incidents between 2009 and 2019. Police reported 511 incidents of human trafficking in 2019. And that number represents only the cases police knew about.
Changing public perception is key to combating the problem, according to Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, a national charity based in Toronto with a goal to mobilize collective action to stop trafficking.
"When they think about human trafficking, they think about women being forcibly confined, shipped across borders with handcuffs, that's really not what we're seeing in Canada," she said.
Truckers play 'a vital role' in tackling problem
One of the regions of greatest concern to advocates and the Ontario government is the 401 corridor.
"Traffickers will often move folks from city to city along these corridors, because it keeps them dependent on the trafficker, keeps them isolated from their friends and family," said Drydyk.
Truckers who often drive the corridor are playing "a vital role in helping to combat human trafficking" by advertising resources to help women in need on their trucks, according to the Ministry of Children and Women's Issues.
Shelley Walker, the daughter of a trucker and a transport driver herself for more than 30 years, said she personally funded the first transport trailer with anti-human trafficking messaging, including a toll-free hotline where victims get help.
The federation recently developed a training program for commercial truck drivers, to make them aware of what to watch out for.
"We put a lot of work into it, and we hope that we can get more carrier support and more driver support and just start spreading these messages around," said Walker.
"We have kids, we have nieces and nephews, we have grandchildren, so this stuff is important to us."
Right now, as some truckers are associated with blockades, protests and occupations, Walker said "a few bad apples" shouldn't ruin the reputation of the rest of the industry.
"Don't paint us all with the same brush. Just because you've come across one bad truck driver doesn't mean we're all like that," she said.
Long-term strategy needed
The trucking industry isn't the only group getting involved, according to Bland.
Hotels, conference centres, the tourism industry and sporting events are also coming on board to help, she said.
"We applaud any industry or organization that's taking on building awareness of this issue," said Drydyk.
And part of Ontario's Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy, announced last year, involves school boards.
"Ontario is the first provincial government to mandate that all school boards are required to have anti-human trafficking awareness as part of their overall curriculum. So that is still getting off the ground," said Drydyk.
But more long-term strategies are needed, she said.
"This isn't an issue that we're going to solve in a couple of years," said Drydyk. "And every community across Canada needs to have the resources in place to be able to support people, especially while they're exiting."