The Current

Ontario's proposed human trafficking legislation could take burden off victims, says crisis counsellor

An Ontario woman who survived human sex trafficking, and now helps others who have been affected, says new provincial legislation aimed at tackling the issue shows promise.

Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking commends gov't, but says more can be done

The Ontario government tabled new legislation on Monday to help curb human trafficking. According to data from the province, Ontario accounted for 55 per cent of all police-reported human trafficking incidents across the country in 2019. (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star)

Michelle Furgiuele was just 15 years old when she was lured into a sex trafficking ring while living with her family near Toronto.

Before it happened, she'd been the "ideal, perfect kid." She came from a comfortable middle-class household, and never got into trouble, she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

But she was also a "wallflower." Furgiuele had few friends, and often spent time alone while her parents took her brother to hockey.

"I really was lacking social interaction and felt quite isolated," she said. "So when these guys came around and gave me all this attention, and I felt like I belonged to this family that I was lacking at that time, it was all exciting."

But soon, things took a dark turn. 

Furgiuele's traffickers started recording sexually explicit videos of her, which they used to force her into performing sexual acts for money. She said they threatened to release the videos if she didn't comply.

"And, as a 15-year-old, that was just going to be too catastrophic in my life to handle," she said. "I couldn't think of how I would survive if those videos were to get out."

Michelle Furgiuele, who grew up near Toronto, was lured into a sex trafficking ring when she was 15. The 30-year-old says it's important for her to speak publicly about her story, because she believes she may have been able to escape her situation sooner if someone had helped her understand she was a victim of crime. (Abbi Longmire/Tangent Photo Studio)

On Monday — which was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day — the Ontario government proposed legislative changes that would give police more tools to locate victims of human trafficking, and charge those responsible.

If passed, the legislation would mean people who run hotels or short-term rentals would have to keep a guest registry, the Globe and Mail reported. Anyone who fails to do so, knowingly allows false information to be added to that registry, or refuses to let police see the registry upon request, could face fines, the newspaper said.

The Ontario government says the legislation would also help children's aid societies better support victims, and help more survivors obtain restraining orders against traffickers. Businesses that advertise sexual services would have to appoint someone to support investigations into suspected human trafficking, the government says.

Physical evidence versus testimony

Karly Church, a crisis intervention counsellor with Victim Services of Durham Region, east of Toronto, said the legislation shows promise. She was once a victim of human trafficking herself.

She told Galloway the proposed changes could be helpful in prosecuting sex trafficking crimes, because they would allow police to access more physical evidence from documents or websites.

"Oftentimes when police are doing investigations around human trafficking, a lot of the weight of … charges being laid and following through and being successful in court kind of lie on the shoulders of the victim or survivor," she said.

She explained that these types of cases typically become a situation of "he said, she said," and rely on survivors' testimony.

"So if this legislation is going to allow some of that to be removed from the individual who's already been through significant trauma, then I think this is great," Church said.

Karly Church is a human trafficking survivor who works with the Durham Regional Police Service Human Trafficking Unit, to help rescue girls and women trapped in the sex trade. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking commended the government's efforts to address human trafficking, but added that it's not enough to fix the problem.

It's calling for investments in inter-jurisdictional law enforcement teams. In a new report, the centre explained that traffickers evade law enforcement officials and keep control over victims by operating between cities and provinces, and constantly being on the move.

The organization also wants to see steady funding for programs and supports for victims, and a victim-informed Canadian strategy on human trafficking.

The Ontario government says the province is a "hub" for human trafficking. In 2019, Ontario was home to approximately 55 per cent of all police-reported human trafficking incidents across the country, according to a provincial news release.

The average age of recruitment into sex trafficking is 13, the government says.

Church regularly shares her trafficking experience at speaking events across Canada and around the world. When she does, she challenges people to share what they've learned from her with other people.

"As much as I'd love to be able to reach everybody and really raise this awareness, I can't reach everybody," she said. 

"Have these conversations with your children, your family, your friends, because [it's] the only way we're going to remove this stigma and really start to allow communities to understand that this is happening to their girls and their boys."

Watch | How data collection could help identify victims

Ontario takes aim at human trafficking

The National

2 months ago
CBC News Network's Carole MacNeil speaks with Rhonelle Bruder, a trafficking survivor and founder of the anti-trafficking group Project iRise. 5:47

Furgiuele is now 30. She escaped that traumatic time in her life a few years ago, and now holds a job as a restaurant manager.

But she believes she could have gotten out sooner if there had been more awareness of human trafficking, and more support for victims. 

At the time she was being groomed, Furgiuele said she didn't even know what sex trafficking or prostitution was. And although she went to the police when she was 18, she "didn't get a lot of help," she said.

That's why she is so passionate about sharing her story today.

"Even if I was already entrenched in the situation, and perhaps someone came and spoke at my school, and I could have put a name to what was happening to me, and really identified that I was a victim of a crime … maybe my life wouldn't have been so traumatic for so many years," she said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Joana Draghici, Alex Zabjek and Ryan Chatterjee.

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