Sex Trafficking

Many Canadians believe that sex trafficking is only an international issue. In fact, most trafficking cases in Canada are domestic[1] and a recent report showed 63% of those trafficked in Ontario were Canadian citizens[2].

Often described as a modern form of slavery, trafficking is the control and use of threats or violence to exploit another for financial gain. Sex trafficking throughout Canada is a growing public issue. Homeless youth are among the most vulnerable to exploitation, however unsuspecting girls are also ensnared online, in malls and in school yards. The majority of sex trafficking victims in our country are young, Canadian girls. The average age is estimated to be 17.[3]

The Toronto Police has increased its focus on the crime. In 2014, as a result of their new mandate and formalizing a new anti-trafficking team, the Toronto Police saw an increase in occurrences of 113% and arrests of 360% over the previous year, and the numbers continue to grow. In Canada, Ontario and especially Toronto, are major Canadian hubs. Girls are often transported to and from Canada’s most populous city from other parts of the country for sex trafficking.

At Covenant House, we will often hear a young girl in our care recount how she was convinced or coerced by her “boyfriend” to sell herself for sex. Soon, he trades romance for violence and she is terrified to leave. Traffickers follow a familiar pattern of psychological manipulation and control that includes luring, seducing, grooming, and then terrorizing victims. A recent study found that over a third of victims were recruited by men they considered to be their boyfriends. Another 25% were lured through friends, most often victims themselves.[4]

At Covenant House, we have made sex trafficking a major focus of our work. Our Urban Response Model is implementing a comprehensive anti-trafficking plan that includes measures ranging from prevention to enhanced victim services, including its transitional housing program, The Rogers Homes, as well as a research and evaluation component.

The victims

Trafficking victims can come from any neighbourhood. The ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds of the girls are varied. Research in Ontario has shown that 90 percent of victims are female and that 42 percent were first trafficked before the age of 18.[5] Major risk factors include mental health issues, body image issues, learning disabilities, social isolation, child abuse experience and poverty. New immigrants, LGBTQ+ youth, and most particularly, aboriginal girls are over-represented among victims. If there is a common theme among victims, it is that they are usually youth who struggle with low self-esteem.

Homeless youth are among the most vulnerable. Over 30 percent of our female homeless youth have been involved in some form of the sex trade, including sex for food. While only some of these youth are trafficking victims, this number indicates the desperation and drive for survival among homeless youth that makes them easy prey for sexual predators. In fact, the number of trafficking victims we have served at Covenant House doubled between 2015 and 2016, with an increase in girls from middle-income, suburban backgrounds.

Barriers to exiting

Pimps know that shifting between acting caring and threatening is an effective way to maintain psychological control over their victims. It ensures that they will feel both loyal and intimidated.

Other common tactics that traffickers use include giving their victims drugs to create dependency, confiscating all identification and money, withholding food or sleep, isolating them from friends and family, and moving them to various unknown locations so they are disoriented and without resources. Finally, traffickers will often blackmail or threaten girls or their families with violence if they suggest leaving. Victims become paralyzed by fear and believe that they cannot survive on their own without their pimps’ help.

Legal challenges

Sex traffickers know that this crime involves low risk and high reward. Law enforcement is challenged to identify victims of sex trafficking. There are also many obstacles in proving the charge of human trafficking in court. Although there has been a recent concentrated effort among governments and police to combat sex trafficking, the laws governing this crime are relatively new and there is still very little court precedent for prosecution. This crime is insidious and often difficult to detect and, once charges are laid, challenging to convict. However, the convictions have begun to increase in recent years.

Victims often suffer from Stockholm Syndrome—their sympathies lie with their abusers, or their feelings are complex and ambivalent. Since many traffickers pose as romantic interests, victims develop a trauma bond, a relationship where a cycle of intermittent rewards and punishments create a powerful attachment to their abusers. They will often swing between a desire to press charges and to rekindle the relationship. Other victims want to avoid the terror of facing their trafficker in court and the ordeal of reliving their experiences. Many girls feel intimidated by the legal system or fear implicating themselves. Finally, since many of the victims struggle with addiction and other mental health issues like post-traumatic stress, credible witness testimony can be difficult to attain.

At Covenant House, we have supported numerous victims through the grueling and emotional process of testifying in court, including the girls whose testimony led to Toronto’s first human trafficking conviction.


Victims exiting sex trafficking are often pulled back in out of fear and desperation, so it is essential that their needs are met in the community. Since they often were trafficked from a young age, they usually have major gaps in their life skills and education, and often have not completed high school.

Stable housing, access to addiction and mental health counselling, access to employment and education programs, survivor peer support, mentorship and frequent check-ins from consistent workers are critical to ensure that victims do not relapse.

Covenant House has assisted trafficking victims for three decades through our crisis shelter and other programs for homeless youth. We recently launched our Urban Response Model anti-trafficking plan, which includes significant expansion of our programs, including prevention, victim services and research.

In 2016, we opened The Rogers Home, a residential program for trafficked girls at a new location to better serve their specialized needs.

Our dedicated sex trafficking advocates work with victims, advise on programming and work closely with community partners including the police.

Signs of luring

If you know a girl who is exhibiting the following symptoms, she may be being lured or groomed for sex trafficking:

  • She has low self-esteem and a strong need for approval, love or attachment.
  • She is receiving expensive things like purses, shoes or jewellery.
  • She is being showered with attention, such as expensive dinners or flowers.
  • She is being isolated or turned against family and friends, and she will not introduce her boyfriend.
  • Her grades are slipping and she is skipping school.
  • She is out late at night and missing her curfew.

Signs of trafficking

If you know a girl who is exhibiting the following symptoms, she may already be a sex trafficking victim:

  • She avoids eye contact.
  • She is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid.
  • She is not allowed or able to speak for herself – a third party may insist on being present and/or answering for her.
  • She exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement.
  • She is not receiving proper health care.
  • She appears malnourished.
  • She shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture.
  • She has few or no personal possessions.
  • She is not in control of her own money, and has no financial records or bank account.
  • She does not have any official ID.
  • She claims she is just visiting and is unable to clarify where she is staying.
  • She has a lack of knowledge of her whereabouts or may not know what city she is in.
  • She has lost sense of time and may not know the date.
  • She has numerous inconsistencies in her story.
  • She has been denied basic necessities.
  • She has been branded with a tattoo.
  • She has a drug or alcohol addiction.

What to do

If you suspect someone is being trafficked or groomed for trafficking, speak to your local police.

[1] Perrin, B. (2010): Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking, Penguin Group.

[2-3] Gabriele, F. et al. (2014): The Incidence of Human Trafficking in Ontario, Ontario Coalition Research Initiative. Alliance Against Modern Slavery.

[4] Canadian Women’s Foundation (2014): “No More”: Ending Sex Trafficking in Canada, Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada.

[5] Perrin, B. (2010): Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking, Penguin Group.

Recent Media Releases

Video provides look into new housing for trafficked victims

Sept. 22, 2016 - As the first young residents move into Covenant House Toronto’s new transitional housing program for sex trafficking victims, the agency today launched a virtual tour of the house to provide an inside look at the new facility.
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Suzanne Rogers supports local volunteers in raising funds for sex-trafficked victims
Jul. 29, 2016 - Suzanne Rogers, chair of Covenant House Toronto’s $10- million anti sex-trafficking campaign, sat down to dinner at a chic downtown bistro last night to support volunteers who are raising funds for the campaign.
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Covenant House welcomes new provincial plan to combat sex trafficking

Jun. 30, 2016 - The province’s new anti-trafficking plan announced today at Covenant House Toronto, is a move in the right direction, the agency says. The new plan for a coordinated and comprehensive provincial strategy was unveiled at the downtown agency, a leader in providing services to young victims of sex trafficking.
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$10-million anti-sex trafficking plan launched by Covenant House Toronto

Jan. 20, 2016 - A $10-million fundraising campaign to support a new comprehensive, coordinated anti-sex trafficking plan, including more help for young, female victims, was launched at Covenant House Toronto today.
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Covenant House supports recommended anti-sex-trafficking measures

Dec. 10, 2015 - The Ontario government should adopt recommendations to better combat sex trafficking proposed today by the Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment.
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Covenant House urges premier to adopt stronger anti-sex-trafficking effort

July 29, 2015 - Premier Kathleen Wynne was urged today to do more to combat the scourge of sex trafficking in the province by Canada’s largest homeless youth agency.
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Covenant House awarded UN grant to aid sex-trafficked victims

May 20, 2015 - Young sex-trafficked victims in Covenant House Toronto’s care will get more help thanks to a multi-year grant from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons.
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Sex-Trafficking Specialist wins Ontario Victim Services Awards

April 23, 2015 - Michèle Anderson, Covenant House Toronto sex-trafficking specialist, who has spent more than 20 years supporting young victims, was among the recipients of today’s Ontario Attorney General’s Victim Services Awards of Distinction.
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New housing program for sex-trafficked victims first step in Covenant House combat plan

Jan. 29, 2015 - Covenant House Toronto Executive Director Bruce Rivers is leading a panel of international child welfare experts today as they consider a new report outlining the worldwide “epidemic” that is putting millions of migrant minors and youth in the hands of predators.
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International child advocates consider child trafficking

June 10, 2014 - "The province’s commitment to extend financial and emotional support for youth
leaving care could help reduce the high number of these young people who become homeless,” Bruce Rivers, Covenant House Executive Director said.
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Covenant House Toronto encouraged by first human trafficking conviction

May 26, 2014 - A conviction of human trafficking for the sexual exploitation of two local young victims who received care and counselling from Covenant House Toronto is encouraging, says the agency for homeless youth.
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Success stories

Living up to his promise

Malcolm spent a grueling three months on the street, sleeping in Internet cafes and 24-hour restaurants.
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