Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Ontario Superior Court building in Toronto on Jan. 29, 2020.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

There are only two provinces in the country that have appointed Crown prosecutors solely dedicated to human-trafficking cases, despite the complexity of the crime and the challenge of securing convictions.

Prosecutors who focus only on these cases are better-positioned to understand a victim’s trauma and how to support and represent them throughout the justice process, legal experts and those who work with survivors of sex trafficking say. But there are few such Crowns in Canada.

The Globe and Mail surveyed all provinces and territories to determine how many have appointed dedicated Crowns and what kind of training they have had. Ontario is leading the way in this effort, with 10 dedicated Crown prosecutors. Nova Scotia appointed its first in July.

While other provinces do not have dedicated Crowns, many offer specific training in human trafficking. Manitoba has gone a step further by appointing two specialized Crowns. However, they also prosecute other types of cases.

Long before the court process begins in jurisdictions across the country, victims of sex trafficking are often reluctant to report their abuse to police. Organizations who assist survivors say it could be because they don’t trust them, perhaps because of a bad experience, or because some traffickers incriminate their victims to prevent them from going to police.

How Canada’s sex traffickers evade capture and isolate victims to prevent their escape

Schools inconsistent in teaching students about sex trafficking in Canada

Some victims of sex trafficking also may fear that if they reach out to police, their trafficker will hurt them or a family member. That fear makes it extremely difficult to come forward and especially challenging for them to testify in court. And some victims, experts say, form a trauma bond or an attachment to their abuser, which can make it even harder for courts to understand what the victim has gone through.

Susan Orlando, Ontario’s Crown co-ordinator for human-trafficking prosecutions, said she believes Crown prosecutors with specialized knowledge of the crime help the courts understand elements of sex trafficking that are not easily understood.

“It’s not that different in a sense from where things were many years ago with respect to domestic violence and sexual assault, the unwillingness to speak about these things,” she said, adding “and also that trauma bond and going back into either the sex trade or to the same pimp potentially over and over again.”

Ms. Orlando said that a lot of the time, it is suggested in court that the victim was willingly involved in the sex trade, and not exploited because she was able to leave. Perhaps, she said, the victim was alone at a hotel, or she was allowed to get her nails done by herself.

Because a lot of people are not familiar with the world of human trafficking, they don’t understand how easy it is to be recruited and how hard it is to get out, Ms. Orlando added. Once specialized prosecutors have that understanding, she said, they can draw out evidence from the complainant to help her explain those elements that could lead to a conviction.

Ontario’s team of six dedicated Crowns was assembled in 2017 and recently expanded to 10. She said that when they first started, the team recognized they would never be able to prosecute all the cases themselves, so they started training Crown prosecutors across the province.

Brian Gray, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney-General, said almost all of the 54 Crown attorney offices have at least one Crown with specialized training, and larger offices have several. However, these Crowns also prosecute other crimes.

Ms. Orlando said the dedicated Crowns have worked with survivors and community-service agencies to better understand how to support victims in the justice process. As part of their training, they heard from a trauma specialist who specializes in how trauma impacts the victim in court, particularly their memory and ability to answer questions.

Many victims find it extremely difficult to testify in court because of drug addiction, mental-health issues and trauma.

“Sometimes even just having to review their statement to prepare for court and the idea of testifying is just too much for them,” she said. Just talking about the experience makes them relive it, she said.

Natacha Godbout, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, works with victims of trauma and said when someone is trafficked, they can form a bond to their perpetrator.

“It’s a psychological survival strategy that involves the development of a positive feeling toward the aggressor … the need to preserve something good in the other so the situation makes more sense.”

Sometimes the trafficker creates a narrative to justify their actions, she said, and victims begin to accept that narrative as a reason they are being abused. Victims can also create a narrative, she said, to cope.

Dr. Godbout said when it comes to testifying in court, trauma victims will forget details, and are sometimes unable to tell their story in a linear way.

“Our system is not made for trauma victims as it is … we need to educate the court system about trauma, the effects of how it works, how the victims are used. We have lots of work to do,” she said.

Nicole Barrett, director of International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at Allard Law, University of British Columbia, said it can be difficult for courts and juries to understand the trauma a sex-trafficking victim has experienced.

“In order to understand the complex trauma that’s involved, it really requires specialized knowledge … so I think that’s sort of the argument for specialized Crowns,” she said.

Josie McKinney, Nova Scotia’s first Crown prosecutor dedicated to human-trafficking cases, said prosecuting human-trafficking cases is challenging because the nature of the crime is unlike any other.

“You’re examining the relationship between the victim and the offender and the process of grooming and dependency and fear … the very exploitative nature of it can make it very challenging,” she said.

Ms. McKinney said her role includes working with community groups that help victims, and to help develop training that will be delivered to other Crown prosecutors in the province.

“One of the goals of having dedicated prosecutors and dedicated police officers is creating an institutional knowledge.” Ms. McKinney said these individuals understand how to investigate and prosecute human-trafficking cases differently so the approach “may be “victim-centred, but not victim-dependent.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe