Human trafficking is a problem in Ontario. Here’s how one place is trying to fix it


By Alexa Ford

Julia Fiddes has worked in social services for almost 20 years and seen first-hand the toll human trafficking has on a person. “It’s one of the most insidious types of trauma I’ve ever seen because these traffickers, they have affected every single level of a person’s psychological, physical, mental well-being and it’s really, really hard to pull free of that.”

On the outside, Halton Region, a collection of southern Ontario towns and cities, may seem like a great place to live—according to Clever Canadian, Oakville and Burlington are in the top ten list of places to live in the province. But some who live here call Halton “the corridor” and say it’s anything but peaceful. As Fiddes, who runs the anti-human trafficking unit at SAVIS said, Halton is “a scumbag’s paradise.” Halton has been coined the corridor because of its location along Highways 403 and 401, which connects larger cities in the province and is also close to U.S. border crossings. The region also has a lot of youth, who are often the targets of human trafficking. As of 2021, there are more than 100,000 youth under the age of 14 in Halton, according to Statistics Canada’s youth census report.

Halton’s problem

Human trafficking in Halton has been an issue for many years but since COVID-19, the region has seen the number of arrests and cases increase 74 per cent. In 2021, there were 213 sexual assault arrests. That number increased to 265 arrests in 2022. In 2021, Halton police made 39 arrests for abduction. In 2022, that number increased to 44 arrests. Human trafficking is hard for police to track but typically police say when they’re investigating either a sexual assault of an abduction, they later find out the person has been a victim of human trafficking, so tracking those arrests usually gives police a window into human trafficking activity in the area.

Halton police Det. Const. Andrea Moss has been with the anti-human trafficking unit for two years and said police consider it a crime of opportunity. “Traffickers travel through our areas to get to other jurisdictions. So, it’s very easy, very easy for them. It’s not like they’re going out of their way to do it, like a stopover as you’re going through.”

But one organization has been chipping away at the human trafficking problem. SAVIS began in 1985 as a rape crisis centre because of the high numbers of sexual assaults happening in the Halton area, with a 24-hour call line for women who needed help. But over the years SAVIS has grown, continuing as a crisis centre and focusing on other areas of exploitation like human trafficking. Answering calls was how they started but they now also offer counselling, and advocate in the community and educate the public.

As time went on, the centre received multiple calls about rape and other forms of sexual assault happening to women in Halton. Because of the number of calls about this type of assault, a separate unit was created. SAVIS has trained volunteers to help people who have been victims of human trafficking file police reports for sexual assault, and its volunteers also provide other supports, such as showing up at court with the victims, or accompanying them to hospital visits.

Fiddes trains every volunteer. “The training is, is intensive,” she said. Volunteers do extensive modules and it takes six to eight weeks before they’re trained to be on the crisis line.

How SAVIS Halton is helping

There are multiple ways that someone could access the supports SAVIS offers. Someone can call the SAVIS 24-hour intake line and speak to someone right away. But more commonly, SAVIS gets referrals from organizations in the area such as the police, Elizabeth Fry Society, or from parents, who reach out to SAVIS if they’re worried their children or their children’s friends are at risk of being trafficked, said Fiddes. The intake line is run by case workers Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. but most calls for anti-human trafficking come in after-hours, said Fiddes, so volunteers are often the first point of contact. If volunteers suspect the person on the other end of the line is being trafficked, they’ll find out whether the person in danger needs housing, health care, or other immediate support.

From there, volunteers forward the case file to the human trafficking unit within SAVIS where it lands on the desk of someone like Brittany Pompilii. This unit gets calls daily from new people who have been victims of human trafficking and have multiple others they frequently check in with. Pompilii, an anti-human trafficking case worker at SAVIS, said depending on the person and their case, case workers will check in with them multiple times a day, week, or month. The unit finds housing for the people who call SAVIS or helps them fill out forms for government support. Other times, case workers are getting the people who use SAVIS a cell phone and gifts cards for Uber so they can travel privately, said Fiddes.

When a case comes across Pompilii’s desk, the main priority is to get the person on the other end of the line out of danger. On this day, Pompilii’s desk is piling up with active cases. Three are new and she checks to see whether the person is already in SAVIS’ database. Then she calls them and asks, Are you safe? When was the last time you saw your trafficker? Do they know where you are? It’s all part of how Pompilii develops trust with the person on the other end of the line.

“You want to have as much continuity as possible. It takes a very long time to build trust with survivors of any form of sexual violence, but very specifically sex trafficking or human trafficking,” she said. “You want to have it just be one person. You don’t want them to call an intake worker, then they’re talking to another person, and then they’re being connected with us. You want to make it as streamlined as possible. That way you can start building that trust and rapport right away.”

Row of Bell pay phones on a concrete wall

“Are you safe?”

Before she can move forward with anti-human trafficking efforts, like finding the person a place to sleep that night or helping them file police reports, the person on the other end of the line must say that they’ve been or are currently in a human trafficking situation. This is part of SAVIS’s policy about human trafficking — Fiddes said it must be crystal clear and disclosed before she and the rest of her team can do their jobs.

Once that happens, Pompilii will meet the person at a local coffee shop, or for a walk. During these meetings Pompilii sets up extra support, such as housing and help with finances. These meetings happen in the community for the safety and comfort of the people who use SAVIS because it is in a public and more relaxed setting than the SAVIS office. Fiddes has worked at SAVIS for two years and said the people SAVIS helps rarely come to the SAVIS office.

“In the time I’ve been here, I haven’t seen one of our anti human trafficking service users enter the building,” she said.

Another way a client can find themselves working with SAVIS is through referrals from surrounding organizations within Halton region. It’s understandable someone who’s been a victim of human trafficking would be hesitant to speak to police, said Moss, the Halton police detective constable. To ease their anxiety, police meet with known sex workers and make sure they know the resources that are available if they want to talk to someone. If a person comes forward to police, it doesn’t mean that an investigation will occur, she added. Often the police will act as a bridge between the person and getting them supports within the community.

“For us, it’s really more important that they [victims] understand that those supports are there for them. We need to ensure their safety, their day-to-day living, all those sorts of things, like shelter, where are they going to go, can we reconnect them with family, or friends, or anything like that. We sometimes think that we’re almost like the last stop to their journey, which, we understand that,” said Moss.

Taking a feminist approach

A resource that police can offer victims of human trafficking is referring them to organizations like SAVIS for their counselling services.

SAVIS’ counselling is offered in multiple ways (in person, online, telephone) from a feminist perspective. That means the counsellor is thoughtful about the fact that there is a link between a person’s wellness and their social, cultural and political experiences as a woman. In practice, Pompilii said this means understanding that traffickers don’t see these women as people, institutions like government and the justice system are set up to favour men and that finding them resources is more challenging and there is still a deep-rooted core ideal in society that women are men’s property.

Pompilii said the approach is more helpful for people who use the organization’s services because it offers them more freedom and control of their situation with less judgement. “Sometimes in Halton specifically, there can be a lot of judgment around survivors and that doesn’t build rapport, that’s not helpful,” she said.

Safe housing

As survivors of human trafficking begin to receive support through counselling, safe housing becomes a critical issue.

Finding housing for people who want SAVIS’ help is the biggest issue facing the organization, said Fiddes. The housing crisis and the high cost of living makes it hard to find someone a place to live. Depending on the person’s situation, the approach to finding them a safe place varies. If the person is in crisis and needs immediate safe shelter, SAVIS will put them in a hotel. But that’s not a permanent solution. If the survivor of human trafficking is already in a shelter, the case workers will help them fill out forms for housing with the region.

At the last shelter where she worked, Fiddes said there was a young woman who was having a hard time getting along with the other women and staff. Fiddes soon found out why.

“I went to speak to her, and I found out part of what it was is she would be up all night. She had a room that was beside a door to the stairs and the door kind of slammed at the end. And then I started to talk to her, and I realized she was probably a trafficking survivor. Anytime she heard a door slam, she was about to be raped. So those kinds of things don’t work well,” said Fiddes.

“Anytime she heard a door slam, she was about to be raped.”

Julia Fiddes, head of anti-human trafficking unit SAVIS

COVID-19 has made housing in Halton even trickier to find, said Pompilii.

“Now it takes years. Survivors of sex trafficking get priority status, so even with high priority status, it can take up to or longer than two years,” she said.

Even with all the supports, there still isn’t enough room to meet the needs of the region. Halton has 3,825 community housing units, said Andrew Balahura, the region’s community housing director. That’s not enough, but the region is committed to building more. Since 2014, 1,174 housing units have been added to the area. Pompilii said when there’s no space for a person in Halton, SAVIS will try to find them a shelter in another region. But that’s not a great option because it takes them away from family or other supports in the area.

A day in the life

Once a person has been through the intake process and placed in safe housing, SAVIS case workers will call and check in. As fast paced as this work is, a typical day is never typical, said Fiddes.

“A typical day looks like just talking her through being able to get out the door and do what she needs to do to help herself feel secure and safe, whatever it is,” she said.

Once the person is safely out of their situation, services users of SAVIS can always call their line, even if they haven’t used SAVIS’s services for weeks, months or even years, said Fiddes.

While these supports and counselling sessions are working, Fiddes said SAVIS is also trying to tackle other major issues, like ignorance.

Kim Ashby, a former lecturer at Western University, who developed a course focusing on trafficking, said that a big problem with trafficking in Canada is the fact that many people don’t recognize that it’s a problem.

“Canadians have been, I wouldn’t say willfully blind, but certainly uninformed about trafficking in their own backyard, so to speak. Canada is number two in the world for trafficking, both as a source country, a transit country and a destination country,” said Ashby, who is newly retired. Source countries are the places where the people who are trafficked are found, said Ashby. Transit countries are the places where people who are trafficked are taken, either via car or plane, before they eventually arrive at the final destination, she added.

Over the years, SAVIS has expanded their reach beyond taking calls. Dedicated workers have developed education programs which are rolled out at local schools, community events, businesses, and agencies. These free seminars teach people about healthy relationships, self-esteem, coping with emotions and how to support a survivor of violence.

When SAVIS first began, topics like assault and trafficking were not discussed, especially in Halton because there was no service like SAVIS up until that point, said Bev LeFrancois, the organization’s first executive director. 

“Survivors are the experts of their own story.”

Brittany Pompilii, anti-human trafficking case work SAVIS Halton

“We saw the need for a shelter for battered women and then a lot of the calls were about women who had been raped. And once we took calls, once women had somewhere to call, they started calling,” she said.

LeFrancois started as SAVIS’s first fundraiser in 1989. She remembers once early in her career when she met with the Solicitor General’s office trying to get funding for the Rape Coalition, a separate organization who reached out to LeFrancois for help.

“I just attended a meeting with another woman, and we sat down, and we wouldn’t leave the room until I had something. I needed a paper in my hand because I was going to a coalition meeting, and I wanted proof. They were saying yes, they would [provide funding] and I said, ‘Well, I need something in my hand,’” said LeFrancois.

Since then, she’s seen how awareness of human trafficking has increased in the Halton area. “A lot of education has been done, so that’s how it’s improved. As far as education, and working with the police and doctors, nurses, there’s more awareness today,” said LeFrancois. “With more awareness, there’s more expectations of society to be doing something to stop it.”

Pompilii said Halton needs more inclusive shelters that operate from a harm reduction approach. Harm reduction focuses on a zero-judgement environment where people get options based on what they actually need not what a social worker thinks they need. For example, Pompilii said, if a sex worker is looking for support, a harm reduction approach may provide them with contraception, food and access to testing for sexual transmitted diseases instead of trying to get them to stop doing sex work.

“Survivors are the experts of their own story,” said Pompilii.

Never ending support

Fiddes will receive calls from people she hasn’t heard from in weeks and is ready to jump right back into their lives and help them however they need. One morning, Fiddes was in her home office trying to describe what a typical day looks like, when her phone buzzed. It was a woman who’d been the victim of human trafficking that Fiddes used to work with but had not heard from in months. That’s not uncommon, she said. People will often stop reaching out and answering when SAVIS calls, but SAVIS is always ready for them if they need help again. Fiddes discovered the woman had been in prison, which is why she hadn’t responded to SAVIS’ calls. After her release she reached out to Fiddes for help finding somewhere to temporarily live. “I did some calls to get some shelter for her out in Niagara because it’s not safe for her to be in this area,” said Fiddes.

As she hangs up the phone with the shelter in Niagara, Fiddes returned to describing her typical day. “A typical day,” she laughed, “just not typical at all.”