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The mother of a teenaged girl who was sex trafficked at the waterfront in Halifax, Nova Scotia on November 20, 2020.

Carolina Andrade/The Globe and Mail

Not one province in Canada mandates teaching students about sex trafficking, even though schools are prime targets for perpetrators.

Across the country, provincial efforts to teach students about sex trafficking are inconsistent. The Globe and Mail surveyed all provinces and territories to better understand what students learn about the issue in school. Most said their curriculums do not specifically name “sex trafficking” as an issue to be addressed in their schools. No province guarantees through education legislation that the topic is covered, while for the most part, they ensure that students learn about healthy relationships and sexual exploitation.

Experts who work with victims and survivors say students should be specifically taught about sex trafficking in class because schools are among the places where traffickers recruit kids, and it’s important that they learn how to recognize recruitment techniques, so they can get help. But experts say students should also learn about causes such as gender inequity and poverty.

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“I would like to see … a curriculum that seeks to advance equity, because human trafficking is a result of inequity and it thrives in inequity,” said Marissa Kokkoros, executive director of Aura Freedom, an advocacy and research organization in Toronto. “You can’t traffic an empowered youth. You can’t. The trafficker will move on to someone else.”

Ontario is the only province that includes the words “sex trafficking” in its curriculums. It first appeared in the Grade 1-8 health and physical-education curriculum in a 2019 update. It had been part of the Grade 9-12 social sciences and humanities curriculum since 2013.

While Ontario is ahead of other provinces in naming the crime, it still doesn’t ensure that students learn about sex trafficking in school.

The curriculum for health and physical-education classes includes exercises that deal with sex trafficking in Grades 7 and 8 – but teachers can opt not to use them. It is, however, mandatory for students to learn about the dangers of digital technology and the effects of violent behaviour.

Ontario has given funding to an organization called White Ribbon, which focuses on boys and men working to end violence against women, to develop resources and lesson plans to help teachers educate their students about sex trafficking. Although the resource is available, it’s still not mandatory for teachers to use it. The organization’s executive director, Humberto Carolo, said it should be mandatory across Canada.

Mr. Carolo said the lessons, created in partnership with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, provide information for teachers about sexual exploitation and human trafficking, including how traffickers groom and recruit women and girls, and also young men.

“Eventually, this needs to be incorporated directly into the curriculum so that it doesn’t rely on educators’ sense of urgency and commitment to addressing these issues,” he said.

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Mr. Carolo said it is just as important for students to learn about sex trafficking as math and history. He said White Ribbon has found that, generally, educators are not aware that young people in schools are recruited and exploited.

Caitlin Clark, deputy director of communications for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the government is taking action to keep youth and the most vulnerable safe, and its updated curriculum “leads the nation and includes educating children about the dangers of human trafficking.”

Lauren Bialystok, a professor at the University of Toronto and expert on ethics and education, applauded the Ontario curriculum for including the phrase “sex trafficking,” saying it is positive that teachers can raise the issue.

“I think it’s good to put a lot in the curriculum, and it’s good to demand a lot of schools, but it can never solve the structural problems, and it can’t get rid of the phenomenon. It can only hopefully mitigate the reach of it,” she said.

However, Prof. Bialystok said for mandatory curriculums to have the desired impact, teachers need to be supported and trained to deal with the sensitivities of the topic and know how to respond when students disclose they are being trafficked.

The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo also designed a curriculum to help teachers conduct lessons on sex trafficking in the classroom. The curriculum, called RESET, is aimed at Grades 7 and 8.

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Bill Lemon, superintendent of student achievement and well-being at the Waterloo District School Board, said he hopes teachers can use RESET this year. The school board is equipping social workers with resources to support students, he said, and has provided online training to teachers.

“We really do want to make sure that not just the folks delivering the curriculum are prepared, but [that] other adults in the building who are supporting students understand the scope and magnitude of the problem of human trafficking so that there’s a community understanding to help address this problem,” Mr. Lemon said.

In Nova Scotia, students are taught how to identify tactics used by traffickers such as luring, grooming and inappropriate relationships, said Violet MacLeod, a media-relations adviser for the province’s Education Department. She said the concept of luring is introduced in Grade 4. The curriculum doesn’t, however, use the term “sex trafficking;” instead, the province uses broader terms such as sexual victimization and exploitation.

A mother from Nova Scotia whose identity is protected by a publication ban said her 16-year-old daughter had been in high school for less than a month when she was lured into sex trafficking by people who pulled her away from home and forced her to perform sex acts in Halifax and other provinces.

Her daughter had met an older girl on Instagram who introduced her to the traffickers.

Desperate to help her daughter, the woman called the police repeatedly, begging them to issue a missing-person report. Eventually, the police arrested the perpetrators.

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The mother said she asked her daughter when she was back home if she had learned anything about sex trafficking in school. She hadn’t.

She shared her story with Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative MLA Karla MacFarlane.

In 2019, after hearing from survivors and others, Ms. MacFarlane introduced a private member’s bill that proposed making lessons about sex trafficking mandatory for students in Grades 7 to 9. The bill died when the legislature prorogued last year, but Ms. MacFarlane said she will bring it back in March.

Ms. MacFarlane said some teachers have told her they don’t teach anything about human trafficking – while others have said they’ve brought in an outside organization to talk to their class about the subject.

“What I have learned is that it’s not consistent, and that’s where we fail, because everyone thinks this is happening in Halifax Regional Municipality. No, it’s not, it’s happening right in front of your eyes, in your own backyard, in the most rural areas,” she said.

“We need something that is mandatory and that we know for sure that every child in in the province of Nova Scotia is receiving the same information,” she said.

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Karly Church, who left the sex trade with a detective's help, now provides informal counselling connects victims and survivors to services with Victim Services of Durham Region and is embedded with Durham Police’s human trafficking unit

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