In a span of several days in December, police released details about two separate human trafficking investigations in Barrie that resulted in charges against three men from the city and another man from Quebec.
One of those investigations was called ‘Project Harwich,’ at which time the OPP unveiled its new “Provincial Human Trafficking Intelligence-led Joint Forces Strategy” or IJFS, which involves nearly two dozen police services.
In both of these cases, police said victims were being trafficked out of hotels in Barrie.
“I don’t believe it’s a surprise for anybody that is working frontline,” according to France Young, a youth outreach counsellor and case manager with Youth Haven in the Alliston and Innisfil area.
“Simcoe County is actually number two in Ontario for human trafficking.”
Young says human trafficking in Barrie is 2.2 times higher than the national average.
She calls it a “hotbed.”
“It’s terrible to say that, but it’s true. Anywhere on the 400-series highways is easy to transport young women and men.”
February 22 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
Young often references a description she heard at a conference to describe human trafficking.
“It’s actually an insidious evil, to be honest, where somebody does not respect the life in front of them, and they can exploit somebody for money. They don’t see the person in front of them or their feelings, their character. There’s no value except for somebody to make money from that person.
Young says in her work she has seen human trafficking in many facets.
“I have seen it with women who are currently being trafficked and are trying to figure out how to get out. I’ve also seen it with people who have exited human trafficking and have reached out for support once they’ve exited, and I have seen it in the grooming state, especially with young people today who have been raised on the internet and social media.”
Young says she is seeing girls as young as 14, 15, and 16 years of age.
“It’s very easy for young people to be manipulated online and then go into things such as sexting or sending pictures, then one thing leads to another and all of a sudden they are in the hands of somebody who wants to exploit them or their lives for money, maybe threatens to expose the pictures they’ve sent. These kids send sexual pictures and give information to strangers online because they think they’re not strangers because they meet them on social media, and they share information and somebody holds it over them.”
Young says stats show 95 per cent of Canadian youth have access to a smartphone and nearly 50 per cent say they are online almost constantly.
“What’s interesting is that when kids are asked how many of them share with their parents who they talk to and what they do online, it’s a very small percentage,” says Young. “And kids, you know, traditionally don’t want to tell their parents everything because that’s part of being a teenager and part of growing up and having your independence.”
Youth Haven and partner organizations go to schools to talk to youth about human trafficking, in particular the grooming process.
“It’s not like in the movies, where people just walk into the communities and pick a girl off the street.”
Frances says human traffickers give somebody what they know they are looking for.
“They start talking to them, convince the person to come out and meet with them, and they get to know about their school and friends, and even get to know about their family,” she explains. “They will find something that the girl or boy wants, and it doesn’t even have to be super expensive, maybe a pair of Nike runners that they wanted for Christmas, and they didn’t get it.”
What happens, says Young, is the person gets a gift and then feels indebted to the groomer.
“Grooming is really where they find a way to give somebody what they’re looking for, whether that’s a relationship, someone to talk with, or buying them expensive gifts, even just popularity, and that’s very true with younger girls.”
According to the Canadian Centre for Human Trafficking, 80 per cent of trafficking victims are female, the recruiting can start at 12 to 14 years of age.
“I’ve heard from young girls I’ve worked with that the grooming process was six months and longer until all of a sudden there is a relationship switch, and it turned into something more assaulting or something that was more dangerous for them.”
Young says victims and the public need to know there are supports out there.
The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline (CHTC) is a confidential, multilingual service, operating 24/7 to connect victims and survivors with social services, law enforcement, and emergency services, as well as receiving tips from the public.
The hotline uses a victim-centered approach when connecting human trafficking victims and survivors with local emergency, transition, and/or long-term supports and services across the country, as well as connecting callers to law enforcement where appropriate.
If you need help, call CHTH: 1-833-900-1010