Few people understand what it’s like to be coerced into sex work at a young age. Ontario’s newly appointed anti–human trafficking director does.
“I don’t generally talk details,” says Jennifer Richardson, who began her new role this week. “But I was a victim of trafficking when I was a young woman and was trafficked all over Canada and into the United States for about three years.”
More than two decades later, Richardson is an expert at fighting human trafficking, and has advised governments, law enforcement, Indigenous organizations, and child welfare agencies. Most recently she was senior manager of the Manitoba Family Service’s Sexual Exploitation Unit.
Now she’s tasked with coordinating various ministries, police forces, and community services across Ontario in an effort to end human trafficking — including sex trafficking as well as trafficking labourers, which common in agriculture, construction, and domestic work — here. It’s the first such effort in Ontario’s history, following a 2015 report that declared the province a “major hub” for trafficking. More than 65 per cent of Canadian cases happen in this province, and many victims are just 13 or 14 years old when they are first exploited.
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The strategy has four main components. It will expand prevention and early intervention programs. It will establish a Crown prosecution team specially trained in human-trafficking issues. It will accommodate Indigenous-led approaches to dealing with trafficking, since Indigenous women are a key target of sex trafficking. And all these components will be coordinated by a dedicated provincial office, with Richardson at the helm.
Traffickers have always targeted isolated people, Richardson says, including those who live in poverty, come from broken homes, and abuse drugs or alcohol. And while many perpetrators still scope out drop-in centres, schools, and nightclubs, today they don’t even have to leave their houses to locate potential victims, instead finding them through social media.
“Somebody puts on their [Facebook] status that they’re feeling lonely and have no one to talk to,” she says. “There have actually been offenders that have specifically stated that they scour the internet and look for women and children and men who are indicating that they’re missing something or that they have vulnerabilities.”
While much of the press coverage about the new strategy has focused specifically on sex trafficking, Richarson's mandate is broader. “Labour trafficking is also very invisible and complex with a lot of immigration issues,” she told TVO.org. Often victims are reluctant to come forward: “When they do disclose what is happening to them, how are they going to continue to support themselves?”
Laurie Scott, MPP for Haliburton–Kawartha Lakes–Brock and Conservative critic for women’s issues, says Richardson has her work cut out for her. “This is one of the largest-growing crimes in Ontario,” she says. “It’s not going away. Every day there are victims. Multitudes of victims.”
Scott believes the government isn’t moving fast enough to implement the new strategy. Since announcing it in June, the province has spent only $1.4 million of the $72 million promised. Scott also says police — who are typically the first point of contact for trafficking victims — tell her they’ve received no direct funding for the program. “It’s spread over four years and nine ministries,” she says. “It’s very convoluted.”
In an email, Lyndsay Miller, spokesperson for Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek, wrote that the government has already taken steps toward implementation, including creating an online training program to educate police and health-care workers on helping victims, and consulting First Nations communities on the development of an investigations coordination team that will work with the OPP.
“We want to ensure initiatives developed under the strategy are effective, responsive and outcomes-based,” Miller wrote. (When pressed for more information about those initiatives, however, the government was light on details.)
Still , despite the challenges ahead and questions about the province’s plans, Richardson seems unfazed. “I’m very excited,” she says. “I think it’s awesome that Ontario has got its strategy, and I’m just excited to start doing the work.”