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An Ontario Provincial Police car is seen in this file photo

MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS

A major investigation into human trafficking has led to the rescue earlier this month of 20 people — some as young as 14 — suspected of working in the sex trade as minors or against their will, police said Thursday.

The investigation — called Operation Northern Spotlight — led to the arrest of 47 people who are now facing 135 charges, including trafficking in persons, forcible confinement, child pornography, and sexual assault with a weapon.

Officers met with people suspected of taking part in the sex trade in early October at locations across the country.

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Most of those rescued were under the age of 19, said Ontario Provincial Police Deputy Commissioner Scott Tod.

"Human trafficking victims rarely identify themselves to authorities, so we have to take a proactive approach," Tod said at a news conference.

Ontario Provincial Police led the latest phase of Operation Northern Spotlight, which involved officers from 40 police agencies across Canada and 350 officers and support staff.

The OPP said it worked extensively with the RCMP and the FBI during the investigation.

In September 2005, the RCMP established the Human Trafficking National Co-ordination Centre at its headquarters in Ottawa to combat the growing problem.

"The role is to provide a focal point for law enforcement in their efforts to combat and disrupt individuals and criminal organizations involved in human trafficking activities," said RCMP Chief Superintendent Warren Coons.

In the 10 years since, the centre has had a hand in laying human trafficking charges in 308 cases across the country, Coons said, adding that 93 per cent of those cases involve domestic trafficking.

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"These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg," Coons said.

South of the border, U.S. law enforcement agencies conducted a similar operation — called Cross Country — which resulted in the rescue of 152 children and the arrest of 153 "pimps," according to Joseph Campbell, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigation division.

Over the past year, Canadian police forces have worked with the FBI in a co-ordinated effort to fight human traffickers.

The FBI's massive operation this past year involved more than 500 state and local law-enforcement partners in 135 American cities. This is the ninth year of the operation during which the FBI said it has rescued more than 750 children.

"It is important to send a message to the children of our countries that we are here to protect them," Campbell said.

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