Courtney Edgar
VJN News

A human trafficking victim who was only 17 years old when a man posted nude photos of her online to force her into sexual acts with more than 100 men would get beat up if she didn’t hand over all of the money she made.

"He's not a human being. He's an animal," the girl told police in an interview played in court during the trial of Jamie Byron. He was sentenced in 2014 to six years in prison in what it believed to be the first human trafficking of a minor conviction in Canada.

The girl, whose name is protected by law, was groomed and convinced that he was in a romantic relationship with Byron. She had a learning disability and bipolar disorder.

She was lured to Montreal under the pretence of a relationship but she soon found out that Byron had other plans. He took her identification, became physically aggressive and he and his female associate began to post advertisements for her online and sold her against her will.

What happened to the 17-year-old girl, and how she was lured into the sex trade, was not unique, according Ottawa police Sgt. Jeff Leblanc.

“That's a fairly common method of recruitment and grooming,” said Leblanc, a 16-year veteran who heads the Ottawa policehuman trafficking unit. “It is quite common and we do see that quite regularly.”

Leblanc says there is no one common recruiting ground for thehuman trafficking cases he has seen.

Leblanc said human trafficking is spread all over the city — in the suburbs, urban areas, in hotels, condos and apartment buildings.

Although it can take place anywhere, human trafficking is a crime that is notoriously under-reported.

“We do run into that every now and then,” said Leblanc. “And it might be a question about how somebody who has been in the sex trade for a while has had a bad experience with police in the past.”

But since 2013, the officers in the Ottawa police humantrafficking unit have a different approach. Officers are training in dealing with abuse and have the goal of removing victims from the abuse of human trafficking.

“So the more people that we deal with and the more service providers and groups that might have contact with victims, the word gets out that if they deal directly with our unit they can feel comfortable in telling their story and we will work with them to make sure they're happy with the outcome,” said Leblanc. “Their safety and well-being is paramount.”

Human trafficking is a crime in Canada that is notoriously under-reported and continues to be a growing industry in Ottawa. It thrives when it can slip between the cracks unnoticed.

Patricia Gagne, a spokeswoman with Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking Humans (PACT), believes that victims don't speak publicly about their situations because the traffickers manipulate and threaten them.

“Traffickers will make the women feel like what they're doing is illegal,” said Gagne. “So you cant go to the police.”

Both the Ottawa Police and the volunteers at advocacy organizations like PACT have been working hard to shine a light into the underbelly of exploitation that happens in the sex trade industry in the city, and have big plans for the year on how to overcome it.

PACT Ottawa led a study in 2014 called Project imPACT, which found human trafficking to be a $26 million dollar industry in Ottawa. It was the first study of its kind.

In the 2014 Project imPACT report, the research found that victims were almost exclusively female and aged between 12 and 25. The report said that 75 per cent of all the victims were under the age of 25. The youngest was just nine years old.

Gagne says that a few years before the report, when they would go in to the schools to speak about trafficking grooming and recruitment, the students would just think that it couldn't happen here. She says now that they have specific statistics, education and prevention is different.

“In nine months we had identified 140 women and girls trafficked for the sex trade in Ottawa,” said Gagne. “And that's just the tip of the iceberg. So when we go into the schools now, it's like we need to be careful now.”