Ellwood Shreve Publishing date: Mar 01, 2021

Kate do Forno, executive director of Chatham-Kent Victim Services says the organization is available to provide free, confidential help to anyone who is a victim of human trafficking. Ellwood Shreve/Postmedia Network
Kate do Forno, executive director of Chatham-Kent Victim Services says the organization is available to provide free, confidential help to anyone who is a victim of human trafficking. Ellwood Shreve/Postmedia Network PHOTO BY ELLWOOD SHREVE /Ellwood Shreve/The Daily News

Human trafficking is “Ontario’s dirty little secret,” says Lisa MacLeod, the province’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries.

Calling it “a scourge” on the province, MacLeod shared plans on Feb. 25 to enact measures to help prevent human trafficking, which primarily targets young females, from occurring in hotels, motels, short-term rentals, and convention and meeting spaces across the province.

The aim is to use legislation, including the Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy Act, and the Accommodation Sector Registration of Guests Act, as well as amendments to the Child, Youth and Family Services Act and the Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking Act, to strengthen the ability of police and Children’s Aid societies to protect exploited children.

“We’re going to clarify how and when police services can access information for hotel guest registries to help deter trafficking and identify and locate victims while establishing regulation-making authority to include other types of accommodation providers,” MacLeod said.

The proposed legislation calls for increasing penalties for those who interfere with a child in the care of Children’s Aid.

“Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes around the world,” said MacLeod, noting the average age of attracting and recruiting a child into sex trafficking is 13.

“It is the girl next door, and we have an obligation as Ontarians, as legislators, as those in the hospitality and tourism sector, as parents, to stand up against this.”

Approximately 55 per cent of all police-reported incidents of human trafficking nationwide occurred in Ontario in 2019, MacLeod said.

Hotels and motels and short-term accommodations make Ontario a hub of human trafficking because many victims can easily be hidden in these places, she added.

Chatham-Kent police and Chatham-Kent Victim Services are working with their counterparts across the province to help victims of this crime.

Being a smaller community between two larger cities and two international border crossings, and being easily accessible from Highway 401, makes Chatham-Kent a prime location for human trafficking, Const. Meredith Rota said.

The Chatham-Kent officer also noted human trafficking has different looks in Chatham-Kent.

“We’ve seen it in a domestic capacity and we’ve also seen it involving transient sex-trade workers coming through the municipality that we’ve been able to reach out to and speak to,” she said.

Rota said sometimes police often have only “one shot” to reach out to a potential victim.

“Time is really of the essence, and it’s important that we know what to look for and where to go to look for this.”

Recognizing several years ago that victims were being brought to local motels, police created a warning sign checklist for staff of hotels and some restaurants, Rota said.

She added police also provided training for management teams.

“Just training the front desk staff and them talking often times to housekeeping staff, we’ve been able to confirm with hotel staff that they really did recognize something was going on,” Rota said.

She cited, as an example, staff noticing when a person didn’t leave their room for several days.

Kate do Forno, executive director of Chatham-Kent Victim Services, said “it’s absolutely imperative that we get to (human-trafficking) victims as quickly as possible.”

She said the highest priority is to wrap services around victims to ensure they have the resources to help them leave their situations.

“We’re excited to work collaboratively with all interested community partners because we know we will not be able to do this alone.”

Potential victims can call victim services at 519-436-6630 for free and confidential help, do Forno said.

She said those who suspect something is wrong can also call victim services.

“We will be able to walk you through the process. We will be able to give you the information you need to support and help those individuals that have experienced trafficking,” do Forno said.

Chatham-Kent-Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls, who has been a strong advocate on this issue, described human trafficking as “modern-day slavery.”

As the father of a daughter and, recently, a new granddaughter, the MPP said, “Human trafficking scares the daylights out of me.”

But, he added, a negative can be turned into positive by helping other parents, grandparents and others become more aware of human trafficking.