Between 2009 and 2019, police in Canada reported more than 2,400 incidents of human trafficking to Statistics Canada, with the vast majority of victims being young women and girls. Across the country, RCMP officers are raising awareness, providing training, and taking enforcement action in an effort to end this type of exploitation.
It happens everywhere. It doesn't matter if you're from a challenged area or an affluent area or if you're from a big city or a small town," says RCMP Cpl. David Lane, an investigator with the Nova Scotia Provincial Human Trafficking Team.
Teaching to recognize trafficking
Human trafficking involves recruiting, transporting and controlling victims, often for sexual exploitation or forced labour. Traffickers will identify vulnerabilities, such as a person's desire to be loved or to belong, or an addiction, and use violence, intimidation or deception to control their victims.
The RCMP's National Human Trafficking Section in Ottawa offers a variety of presentations that officers can deliver, including talks tailored to youth, Indigenous, and community groups.
The average person may not know what human trafficking looks like," says Melina Larizza, a project coordinator with the National Human Trafficking Section. "
There's a distinction to be made between someone who's being trafficked and someone who's engaging in consensual sex work, but the average person can't always see the difference."
Cst. Kristin Appleton admits that when she started as an RCMP officer, she was unaware of the scale of the problem. "
I thought there was no way this was happening in our communities," she says.
As she saw more human trafficking files cross her desk, she became passionate about raising awareness about the topic and now teaches other investigators as part of the Canadian Police College Human Trafficking Investigators Course.
Human Trafficking can be lucrative to criminals. This is happening to our children, our youth, and vulnerable people in our society. I've seen people as young as 11 years old being trafficked," says Appleton.
Raising awareness goes farther than public service announcements. Last year, the Alberta RCMP began offering human trafficking awareness training to employees at the Edmonton International Airport. Now, thousands of people including officers with the RCMP and CBSA, airport and airline staff, and workers in industries like hotels and restaurants, can recognize human-trafficking activity and know where to report it.
A new campaign approach
According to Lane, the awareness campaigns are paying off.
When the Provincial Human Trafficking Unit was launched in Nova Scotia in 2019, officers worked with Crime Stoppers to revamp its human trafficking awareness campaign. Out were the dramatized photos showing handcuffs and taped mouths and in was a new focus on real stories from victims, and education on the warning signs of trafficking.
And, it worked.
We had more calls and tips from the public that year than the total Crime Stoppers had ever received in the past," says Lane. Appleton says when victims see dramatic imagery that doesn't reflect their experience, they might not think what they're going through is trafficking. "
The reality could be a Romeo pimp who befriends you and treats you very well and then plays mind games to get you to work," says Appleton.
Putting victims first
Raising awareness is also essential to ensuring victims know there is support available when they're ready to come forward.
Vulnerable people have been through so much and it's imperative when we're dealing with victims and survivors as law enforcement that we're non-judgemental, compassionate, and trauma-informed," says Appleton.
A victim-centred approach is helping police build rapport with victims and connect them with the help they need. "
We ask them what they want. Sometimes they almost stop in their tracks because we might be the first person to ask them about themselves," says Lane.
The warning signs
It's possible that victims might not recognize they've been recruited into human trafficking and are in a dangerous situation. Someone might be a victim of human trafficking if they:
- appear to be controlled by someone else and need to regularly check in by phone or text
- receive expensive gifts for no reason
- start wearing new and expensive clothes, lingerie, shoes or purses
- withdraw from family and friends
- are not in control of their money or personal documents, such as passport or driver's licence
- started a job that sounds too good to be true
If you suspect you or someone you know might be a victim of human trafficking call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010.