Police forces in Ontario say they’ve freed 43 modern-day slaves brought to Canada from Mexico by alleged human traffickers and forced to work as cleaners and maids at hotels.
The 43, mostly young men were coached on what to say when they entered Canada, lived in squalid conditions in Barrie and Wasaga Beach, and were transported to hotel properties in Central and Eastern Ontario to work, police said on Monday.
All 43 people were freed last Tuesday following a joint investigation that involved the OPP, Barrie Police Services, and the Canada Border Services Agency.
Police said the traffickers allegedly controlled the
The victims had paid the traffickers large amounts of money to leave Mexico and were charged fees for transportation and lodgings.
The Mexicans worked at locations in Collingwood, Innisfil, Oro-Medonte and Cornwall, Ont., police said.
In some cases, police said the Mexicans, after paying various fees, were left with less than $50 a month.
One victim reportedly told investigators: “Last night, I went to bed a slave. This morning, I woke up a free man.”
The alleged traffickers have not been arrested or charged.
A number of sources told police last year that a Barrie-based cleaning company, run by two people, was trafficking and defrauding the Mexican-born workers.
The Mexicans had been brought to Canada under the pretense of being here for educational purposes or the promise of work visas and eventually permanent residency status, says police.
Since they were rescued, they have been offered legal work and accommodations at a Barrie-area resort, Barrie police said.
Twelve search warrants were executed last Tuesday in Barrie and Wasaga Beach, six involving residences and six involving vehicles, police say. About 250 police officers were involved. Investigators are digging into the background of the “two people” who ran the cleaning company but they have not been charged.
Barrie Police Chief Kimberley Greenwood said the joint investigation involved what she called a “labour human trafficking” situation. She called it “very disturbing.”
She said labour human trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation and harbouring of people for the purposes of exploitation for forced labour. It is not confined to large urban centres, she added.
“Whether it involves forced labour or the sex trade, the trafficking of humans is unacceptable. It has no place in our communities and will not be tolerated,” says Greenwood.
“It is inconceivable that this was taking place in our community,” she said.
Victims are often members of vulnerable populations, including migrant workers and new immigrants. Victims rarely go to the authorities.
Greenwood said the 43 were in brought “under misleading circumstances,” promised safer lives and more opportunities. “These individuals are now free from the control of the people who wished to exploit them for personal gain,” she said.
After the victims were rescued, Greenwood said they went to a Barrie and Area Victim Services centre, where they were offered hot showers, food and clothing, and given medical assessments. Interpreters were made available, she said.
“I am pleased to announce that all of the victims have been offered employment and accommodations at a local resort,” she said.
The OPP declined to name the hotels and vacation properties where the men worked and the cleaning company in Barrie.
Criminal charges may be announced at a later date and police said they are looking for other suspects.
Recently, Ontario passed the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, which increases protection for survivors of human trafficking and makes it easier for survivors to pursue compensation, as well as proclaiming February 22 of each year as Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Ontario.
While human trafficking is known to be a vastly under-reported crime, Ontario is believed to be a major centre for human trafficking in Canada, with over two-thirds of reported cases originating in Ontario.
In Ontario, Indigenous women and girls are one of the most targeted and over-represented groups that are trafficked.
Shelley Gilbert, coordinator of social work services at Legal Assistance of Windsor, says “legal and social advocates need to come together to provide the best level of service” for victims of human trafficking—the “perfect marriage” of both legal and psychosocial remedies to the problem.
In Windsor and surrounding Essex County, seasonal agricultural workers make up some of those exploited by human traffickers, says Gilbert.
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