By Robert Cribb Staff Reporter Mon., Feb. 22, 2021

“It never even occurred to me to go to the police,” says Rhonelle Bruder, now 37, who was groomed by a Toronto trafficker at age 16. She is now executive director of Project iRise, which provides training and advocacy for human trafficking survivors.

For nearly two decades, Rhonelle Bruder didn’t talk about the indignities she suffered as a teen victim of human trafficking.    

Like countless other Canadians lured into sex work at a young age, she never filed a police complaint. Her case is not part of any government statistic detailing the scourge of modern slavery in this country.

Fear and stigma kept it quiet.

“It never even occurred to me to go to the police,” said the now 37-year-old, who was groomed by a Toronto trafficker at age 16. “There wasn’t any awareness on the issue.”

Today, Bruder marks a moment when Canadians acknowledge for the first time the horrors of a burgeoning crime that too often goes unpunished and unrecognized.

Canada’s inaugural National Human Trafficking Awareness Day begins an annual acknowledgment of the human costs of the crime — every Feb. 22 — following a motion unanimously approved by parliamentarians last week.

“This kind of national awareness is incredibly important because the majority of Canadians still don’t believe human trafficking is happening in his country,” said Bruder, founder and executive director of an anti-trafficking non-profit group.  “Many people believe it’s a foreign issue happening somewhere else.”

Not so.

Police services across the country reported 1,708 incidents of human trafficking between 2009 and 2018, according to Statistics Canada. Those cases spiked over the nine years, with Ontario accounting for more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of the national total.

Still, those numbers represent the tip of a deep iceberg, said Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking and author of a new report on the state of trafficking in Canada to be released Monday.

The centre’s 24-hour hotline receives reports of trafficking from victims, survivors and front-line workers.

“Our research shows a relatively small fraction of human trafficking cases that come in through the hotline reach any type of law enforcement,” she said. “Conviction rates are so incredibly low … It is a horrible, tedious and long process for victims that more often than not does not result in convictions or any substantive time in jail.”

Many cases go unreported because vulnerable victims, threatened by their traffickers, fear for their lives, concludes a Statistics Canada report from last year. Cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and police investigations are subject to shifting “resources and priorities,” the report says.

Drydyk’s research includes interviews with 20 police officers across the country who stressed the challenges of pursuing human trafficking cases due to “insufficient” and “inadequate” resources.

One anonymous officer also said understandably reluctant witnesses often stymie any hopes of prosecution: “It can be really hard to get statements from victims … Having to retell their story constantly is a huge barrier, especially when they can be treated like they are the guilty ones.”

Ontario, Alberta and a number of Canadian cities, including Toronto, already have trafficking awareness days on Feb. 22 — commemorating the day in 2007 when the House of Commons unanimously condemned human trafficking.

Arnold Viersen, a Conservative Alberta MP who co-chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, which proposed the motion for a national day, says the achievement will help put trafficking on the public radar across Canada.

“This will allow us, every year, to speak about it, raise it in the House of Commons, allow average Canadians to talk to their neighbours about it and be aware that it is happening right here in Canada, within 10 blocks of where you live.”

Half of all reported incidents of human trafficking have occurred in four major cities, led by Toronto (418 incidents, or about a quarter of all incidents in Canada), Ottawa (12 per cent of all incidents), Montreal (nine per cent of all incidents), and Halifax (five per cent of all incidents), according to Statistics Canada.

Toronto is where Bruder was recruited into the sex industry. Facing bullying and discrimination in her hometown of London, Ont., she fled at age 16 to Toronto, where she was homeless or living in shelters until meeting a 20-something woman promising a way out.

“She was a recruiter,” said Bruder. “Traffickers will have other girls recruit for them because you’re going to be less cautious about a woman than a guy.”

It worked.

The woman was friendly and supportive, and had a condo and luxurious lifestyle that impressed a young Bruder.

“She had everything I wanted. She said, ‘I know this guy who can help you. He helped me.’ When you’re young and naive, you want things to be true.”

Of the 1,400 victims of human trafficking reported by police in Canada between 2009 and 2018, women and girls made up 97 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

The man was attentive and charming. He asked questions and listened. He said he would help and protect her.

More than 90 per cent of victims, like Bruder, knew the person who was accused in the incident, Statistics Canada data shows.

“There’s this idea that someone comes and kidnaps you off the street and puts you in a white van and chains you up in a basement. That does happen, but more common in Canada is a ‘Romeo’ pimp who presents themselves as a boyfriend to the victim. They start a relationship with them, they treat them as girlfriends and say they love them.”

The Romeo narrative worked on a young Bruder.

“I thought I had this person that cared and wanted to help me,” she recalled.

But soon enough Bruder was travelling across the province with him and a group of other young girls to dance in strip clubs. They did the “circuit” of clubs from Windsor to Niagara Falls, her hometown of London, Ottawa and beyond.

Each day, the girls would be taken to the clubs around noon with a daily quota of money they had to earn however they were able, she said. Falling behind on their daily totals meant adding the missing money to the next day’s quota.

Human trafficking corridors, routes across the country that traffickers use to transport victims for sex work, are pervasive, said Drydyk.

“We hear a lot about the 401 corridor in Ontario and the Nova Scotia corridor,” she said. “Traffickers are using major transportation routes for the exploitation of their victims, using online escort ads, hotels and short-term rentals. It’s happening in plain sight.”

It was a violent incident against one of the young women she was working with that gave Bruder the final incentive to get out.

“I had an awareness I was over my head,” she recalled. “I was in a situation where I was trapped. I was on my own, not connected to family anymore. It was a very difficult situation to get out of. I got fearful for my life.”

Bruder did eventually escape, returned to the streets and took years to recover, she said.

“It was back to square one. But I never saw him again.”

Bruder’s Project iRise, which she launched last year, provides training and advocacy for trafficking survivors, youth and caregivers.

It has already attracted high-profile interest, earning her a Women of Worth honour from L’Oréal Paris for her philanthropic work. Bruder is one of 10 Canadian women chosen for working “tirelessly to implement global change and bring hope to Canadians.” Her organization will receive $10,000.

“The fact that we’re talking about this issue is a great step forward but there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said.

Robert Cribb

Robert Cribb is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]