Covenant House appealed to the Ontario premier to take action against sex trafficking. Between 2006 and 2011, half of the charges laid in Canada were in Toronto, a city identified as a hub for trafficking in the province. This photo illustration of a woman depicts the effects of sex trafficking and the despair its victims often say they feel. CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

Covenant House calls on Ontario government to do more to fight sex trafficking

  • July 30, 2015

TORONTO - Canada's largest homeless youth agency is calling on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to adopt a broader, more co-ordinated approach to combat the scourge of sex trafficking.

In solidarity with United Nations Day Against Trafficking in Persons (July 30), Covenant House Toronto launched a public awareness campaign urging the Ontario government to enact a provincial policy to tackle the victimization of local girls and young women.

Covenant House has more than 30 years experience researching the issues of sex trafficking in Canada. Bruce Rivers, executive director at Covenant House, said the agency has studied hundreds of hours of interviews from sex-trafficking victims it has worked with over the years.

Since Toronto Police formed its Human Trafficking Enforcement Team (HTET) in 2013, there has been a 360-per-cent increase in arrests and 421-per-cent increase in charges laid. Rivers said the activity has always been there and the significant increase is attributed more to the focused and organized effort by police. Rivers commended similar comprehensive response efforts in other police departments in the Greater Toronto Area. However, he said that these co-efforts must be co-ordinated across the province.

"We think that the Premier and the government are doing great work in this area. We just think that they need to co-ordinate those efforts in a more effective way," said Rivers. "I think at a provincial level, it would help to co-ordinate some of those efforts so that you can exchange best practices and knowledge, and also create a consistent framework provincially."

Other provinces have already adopted a similar approach. British Columbia took the lead for Canada, establishing an Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons in 2007. Like Toronto, Vancouver has been identified as a transit and destination point for human trafficking.

"It was the first of its kind in Canada," said Rivers. "They created a framework to protect the victim... They've got public safety. They've got the solicitor general. They've got children and family services... all these different ministries to combat trafficking."

Rivers said it's about time Ontario does the same.

In its research, Covenant House found Toronto to be a "hub" for sex trafficking in Ontario. The province itself accounts for 63 per cent of sex-trafficking cases in Canada.

"One of the things we wanted to highlight is that when people think about human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular, they often think that it's something not affecting our youth, but in fact the opposite is true," said Rivers.

"It could happen to a girl just like a girl you know. They are lured in public places, schools, malls and online," said Michèle Anderson in an online public awareness video Covenant House released July 29. "The girls that I work with are 16 to 24. I do get calls from girls as young as 12 or 13 years old."

Anderson, a sex-trafficking specialist at Covenant House, said she has seen her caseload double in the past year to about 40 victims. Increasingly, the victims have been young, middle-class girls. Homeless youth are particularly at risk of being involved in the sex trade, often as a strategy of survival.

The video depicts a teenage girl named Amy who is forced into prostitution by a trafficker she thought was her boyfriend. Traffickers often target young girls by romancing them at first and then use the girl's vulnerability to manipulate them. When the "romance" changes, traffickers threaten girls with violence, intimidation, drugs and isolation from family and friends.

"The video is based on a real life story of the girls who we see," said Rivers. "Amy shared her story with us on the condition that she remained anonymous. She is living somewhere else in Canada and is moving on with her life, but her story is representative of many of the young women we've worked with."

Along with the video, Covenant House has opened an online petition to ask the government to create a provincial policy framework for Ontario.

Covenant House aims to get 12,000 signatures on its online petition, which will then be submitted to the Ontario legislature when it resumes sitting in September.

The online petition and public awareness video can be seen at

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