Police, Crime Stoppers raise awareness about human trafficking in Halton region

Kelly Tallon Franklin is a survivor of human trafficking and the founder of Courage For Freedom, which trains front-line workers who encounter victims of human trafficking. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

Halton Regional Police and Crime Stoppers are working to raise awareness about how to spot the signs of human trafficking — something that remains well-hidden but prevalent in the Halton region.

On Wednesday, an education session was held at Halton police headquarters, with a focus on informing those in the hospitality industry, since hotels, motels and Airbnbs are commonly the bases of operation for sex traffickers.

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Superintendent Kevin Maher says Halton police laid 72 separate charges and rescued 12 victims of human trafficking over the past 12 months.

“I feel that speaks to the depth of the problem and the tragic impact,” said Maher. “The fact that 12 separate young women have suffered greatly and have been significantly traumatized here in Halton.”

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He said that most of the charges police have laid this year were the result of investigations that began after receiving a tip from a member of the public.

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Two detectives from the police service’s human trafficking unit gave a presentation on what human trafficking is, how traffickers recruit their victims, how to recognize a potential victim, and who to contact about a possible case of human trafficking.

Det. Const. Lukasz Walczykiewicz said the Halton region is favoured by traffickers for a number of reasons.

“We have a lot of highways. People make a lot of money in Halton – Oakville, Burlington – and you drive the QEW from Winston Churchill all the way to Brant, look to your left and right, we have so many hotels – so that is why they’re in this area – and they can charge a little bit more and they know that.”

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Police work with a number of victim support agencies, including the Sexual Assault & Violence Intervention Services (SAVIS) of Halton, which has developed the Halton Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (HCAHT).

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Walczykiewicz said the psychological hold that traffickers have on their victims is incredibly strong.

“Sometimes we have a hard time wrapping our head around how much control these individuals have over their victim.”

“Although they’re not with them 24/7 in the hotel, they still have that psychological hold on them.”

The story doesn’t end once victims are rescued.

Kelly Tallon Franklin is a survivor of human trafficking and the founder of Courage For Freedom, which educates, trains and certifies front-line workers, hospital staff, police, and other people who work with trafficking victims.

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“We help empower young women … to self-direct their choices and their care,” Franklin said. “To make the decision to keep themselves safe. Because if we don’t talk that language, if we don’t do it this way, they’re not going to learn how to care for themselves. They’re going to feel like failures. The pimp, manager, mum, madame – whoever it is that was working them – all their lies creep back in their head, their trauma bonds snap, and … they go back in.”

She said 72 per cent of those who are trafficked in Ontario are minors, with the median age being 12.

The youngest person she’s worked with was four years old.

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Franklin stressed the importance of listening to victims. One of the survivors she worked with helped to create Project Maple Leaf, a new initiative launched over the summer to stop human trafficking.

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“This started because she was sick and tired of going into bathrooms and seeing the posters where the girl in the poster was always dressed in black and grey … she’s sitting on a curb, her clothes look slutty … and there’s somebody standing behind her with their arms folded. It’s a male figure that’s buff and they have no head.”

“She got so angry that at one of our engagements training police officers, she said: ‘This should be really easy. The cops should just go around and arrest every headless man.'”

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Her quip sparked a dialogue among survivors across the province.

This summer’s launch of Project Maple Leaf,  previously called Project OnRoute, also saw the creation of a national hotline and a hashtag for social media – #KnowHumanTrafficking – to spread awareness.

The phone number for the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking hotline at 1-833-900-1010.

The Project Maple Leaf campaign will begin again on Feb. 22, which is the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness in Canada.

Franklin said she hopes that the campaign will continue to spark a dialogue about human trafficking, especially with young women.

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Halton police urge anyone who thinks they’ve spotted a case of human trafficking not to approach the victim, but to call 911 for an emergency, the Halton police non-emergency line at 905-825-4777, or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS).

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