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the trafficked

Regina’s “Stroll” – the stretch of 5th Avenue where Beatrice Wallace-Littlechief, a survivor of sexual exploitation, was once trafficked, and now works as a co-ordinator with an AIDS program.May Truong/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada

The Ontario government will unveil a strategy in June to combat human trafficking, and while it will not focus solely on indigenous women, the province acknowledges that the exploitation "overwhelmingly" affects indigenous women.

Plans for the anti-trafficking approach emerge two months after a legislative committee recommended the government develop a provincial strategy for Ontario, which the RCMP consider a major hub for sex trafficking in Canada.

In a report slated for release on Friday, the Ontario Native Women's Association urges the Liberal government to go a step further for aboriginal women by creating an "indigenous specific" anti-trafficking strategy. The association says the magnitude of the exploitation and the social ills in which it is rooted demand such an approach. ONWA wants the province to strike a special task-force and dedicate consistent funding to front-line groups working to protect indigenous women in Ontario.

A spokeswoman for Premier Kathleen Wynne told The Globe and Mail the anti-trafficking strategy will be "overarching."

However, Jennifer Beaudry said in an e-mail, "we do recognize that this issue overwhelmingly impacts aboriginal women."

The 21-page ONWA report, which draws on existing research and calls for improved data collection on the national phenomenon, comes on the heels of a three-month Globe investigation into the trafficking of indigenous women in Canada. The Trafficked, a series that launched online on Thursday, is based on more than 60 interviews with survivors and their families, police officers, researchers, indigenous groups and front-line service providers in Canada and the United States.

The legal definition of human trafficking is recruiting, harbouring, transporting or controlling the movements of a person for the purpose of exploitation. Most of it is sex trafficking, and in Canada, it overwhelmingly takes place within the country's borders.

Although the RCMP said in a 2013 report that domestic trafficking for sexual exploitation "exists and is widespread in Canada," it is impossible to know the full extent of the problem. The crime is under-reported, and many victims do not self-identify as having been trafficked. Existing research, while piecemeal, shows indigenous women and girls are at a disproportionately high risk of trafficking.

The Globe's reporting found more evidence to that effect. Toronto's Covenant House, which serves homeless youth, estimates about a quarter of the trafficking cases it sees involve aboriginal women and girls. Toronto police estimate 20 per cent of sex-trafficking victims are indigenous women, even though aboriginals comprise about 1 per cent of the city's population. At a press conference last year, Toronto police said investigations have revealed there "may be some connection" between human trafficking and the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women in Canada.

Ontario is also a hub for prosecutions: Of the 180 human-trafficking cases before the courts in Canada as of August, more than 90 per cent were in Ontario and Quebec, according to RCMP figures.

Ms. Beaudry said an advisory panel co-led by the ministers responsible for community safety and women's issues will collaborate with front-line experts to develop the strategy. The province is also seeking advice from the government of Manitoba, which was singled out by both Ms. Beaudry and ONWA as a leader in the area.

"It is clear that there is a drastic need for co-ordination of information between local authorities, government and community organizations," Ms. Beaudry said. "We need to ask: How are we not closing these gaps? How are these young women falling through the cracks?"

A spokeswoman for Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi said in an e-mail that the government is reviewing the legislative committee's report to "further strengthen" its efforts on the issue. Lauren Callighen also noted that Ontario police forces are working with the RCMP and the Canadian Border Services Agency to tackle human trafficking, pointing to an OPP-led operation that last year culminated in the rescue of 18 victims and the arrest of nine alleged traffickers.

Cora-Lee McGuire-Cyrette, ONWA's interim executive director, said the government must launch an indigenous-specific strategy, in part because aboriginal women are over-represented among trafficking victims but also because of the social factors that render them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. The ONWA report points to poverty, addiction, the legacy of colonialism, the over-representation of aboriginals in the child-welfare system, racism and childhood sexual abuse, which it says may lead to a "normalization" of sexual violence.

Ms. McGuire-Cyrette said victims have told the association they want aboriginal agencies to provide "gender-specific cultural programming" to help women avoid and escape traffickers. "We're failing the women who are working the streets tonight," she said. "We can't wait any longer. Our women are dying on the streets while we sit and try to figure out this issue."

The ONWA report says current provincial and national data on sex-trafficking are "fragmented," hindering efforts to develop provincial and national strategies and measure their effectiveness. It notes that the U.S. Department of State has recommended that Canada improve data collection on trafficking.

Detective Sergeant Thai Truong, who oversees the vice and human trafficking unit in York Region, north of Toronto, said he also sees the need for better data. "We need the data collection to try and capture a more specific picture of what is really happening," he said. Det. Sgt. Truong said he is nonetheless certain aboriginal women and girls are at risk.

"I can tell you, 1,000 per cent," he said, "they are very vulnerable."

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