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Jennifer Richardson, Director of Ontario's new Anti-human Trafficking Centre at her home in Winnipeg Manitoba, December 23, 2016.Lyle Stafford

Ontario's first director of its anti-human-trafficking office brings to the job not only nearly two decades of work history in tackling the issue, but first-hand insight, having lived through the experience herself.

"I was trafficked at 13," Jennifer Richardson says in an interview. "For three years. Across pretty much every province in Canada, and into the U.S. a little bit, by a quite organized group."

Her own experience as a survivor of sex trafficking – where she endured physical and emotional abuse, along with manipulation – led her into the field. Her exit occurred in Montreal, after the police intervened in the wake of an assault.

"I actually, still to this day, have pretty big chunks of my memory gone … back when that happened to me they weren't talking about post-traumatic stress much, but it could have been from that."

She's reluctant to disclose details of her experience, partly because the people who trafficked her are still engaged in illicit activities. But her lived experience, along with years of work in the field and academic research on the issue, give her a unique window into a complex, hidden and under-reported crime.

Human trafficking is defined as recruiting, transporting or exercising control over a person to exploit them, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour. The majority of trafficking cases in Canada are domestic, rather than cross-border, and most reported domestic cases are sex trafficking, according to the RCMP.

Ontario has about 65 per cent of the human-trafficking cases reported to police in the country, and the RCMP has said the province is a major hub for trafficking in Canada. The human cost is steep, as trafficking can inflict serious and long-term trauma on survivors.

In response, the Ontario government said in June it will spend up to $72-million over four years in a new anti-trafficking strategy, becoming the third province in Canada to adopt a plan to fight human trafficking. The strategy aims to boost awareness and co-ordination, enhance justice-sector initiatives and improve access to services.

Part of that plan is the creation of a new anti-human trafficking co-ordination office, which Ms. Richardson will lead as of Jan. 2, with a team of nine people that will be based in Toronto.

Trafficking tends to be under-reported, and data collection is either scant or non-existent, something she wants to see improved.

"Due to fear, due to shame, due to the victim blaming … there are whole myriad issues as to why it's under-reported," she said. "But what we know generally, is that the people on the ground who are interfacing with people who have been trafficked often just don't have the resources to do the data collection, and to track it really well."

In Manitoba, the province does collect data on the number of children who are victims of sex trafficking, she said. "Last year, just alone in Manitoba, we identified 333 different children," she said, which reflects how prevalent the problem is.

In Toronto, as of mid-December this year, Toronto police have found 62 trafficking victims – 60 per cent of whom are 16 or younger. They have made 77 arrests and laid 529 charges of trafficking or related crimes. The youngest victim was 13 – the same age as Ms. Richardson was.

"When you think of kids at 13, that's the perfect stage to offend against children in this way, because they're really vulnerable just because of their stage of development. That's the stage when we're all trying to be autonomous and develop our own identity and move away from our parents. I don't think it's a coincidence that when you look at the stats worldwide, that's one of the … stats that stays the same, no matter what country you look at the literature in: 13 1/2 is the average age of entry in every country."

She was returned home to Winnipeg, and placed in a program that she later went on to manage, called TERF (or Transition, Education & Resources for Females), which works with those who have been sexually exploited. The program employs both people with lived experience and those with formal education.

"They helped me to get back into school eventually, did a lot of the clinic therapeutic stuff that I needed, worked with my family … there were some job-skill training and educational components built in. But for me, really, the biggest thing was having people around who understood what had happened."

Ms. Richardson is currently completing a master's thesis on best practices in working with exploited children and youth. She has worked in this area for more than 22 years, most recently as the senior manager of Manitoba's Sexual Exploitation Unit. Before that, she trained people across Canada and the United States on how to work with survivors of sex trafficking.

Of Ontario's reported cases of human trafficking, about 70 per cent are for sexual exploitation, the province says. The new centre will focus not just on sex trafficking, but labour trafficking as well, an area Ms. Richardson says deserves more attention.

Those most vulnerable as targets for trafficking include indigenous people, young women, youth in care, migrant workers, and people with mental health and addiction issues.

A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year showed that, despite a raft of studies and surveys highlighting that indigenous youth and women make up a disproportionate share of trafficking victims in Canada, relatively little dedicated federal funding has gone to prevention or protection.

"Definitely we do see in certain sub-populations, over-representation in indigenous women and girls, and that goes back to colonization, the complexities of how that's impacted indigenous people for hundreds of years until today," Ms. Richardson said. "We are going to be working with indigenous leaders and communities to look at what's going to fit in each community. I'm not trying to build a one size fits all."

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