A 17-year-old girl from Ottawa was among the 20 victims rescued last October as part of the latest Operation Northern Spotlight — a Canada-wide human trafficking initiative.
The fourth phase of the operation resulted in 47 people charged with 135 offences. The RCMP partnered with 40 police agencies across the country to identify human trafficking victims forced to work in the sex industry.
During the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted similar investigations across the United States, where more than 135 cities participated in Operation Cross Country IX.
According to the Criminal Code of Canada, human trafficking includes the recruitment, transportation or harbouring of people for exploitation in the sex or labour industry.
"The awareness of human trafficking is really taking hold now," says Cpl. Yves Brochu from the RCMP's Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre. "We're seeing the light coming on across the country — human trafficking sections are being launched by municipal police agencies everywhere."Brochu says the high success rate of the operation is an indicator of the magnitude of this crime. But he also cautions that it is impossible to know the true extent of the offense because it exists underground without borders.
"There are some willing participants in the sex trade, but we're also aware that the percentage of people doing it against their will is pretty high," says Sgt. Jeff LeBlanc, who leads the Ottawa Police Service's Human Trafficking Unit.
Because the crime is victim-based, police partner with support services in the community.
"A lot of the investigations hinge on victims who have been abused and are emotionally and psychologically traumatized," says Brochu. "It's not like your typical investigation where you catch a bad guy and he goes to jail. There's a huge amount of follow-up and secondary care on the part of investigators and support agencies."
Although local police agencies conducted their own independent investigations, many cases are collaborative in nature, spanning municipal, provincial and national borders.
"If our team finds something, a web usually develops pretty quickly," says LeBlanc. "Even if we only come across the one file, it's pretty significant when we can intervene and save multiple under-age victims."