Authorities in Ontario say they have freed 43 people who were essentially living as “modern day slaves” in the province.
According to the Ontario Provincial Police, the victims—who were described in a press release as “mostly males ranging in age from 20 to 46 years”—were freed on February 5 from Barrie and Wasaga Beach as the result of a police operation that involved hundreds of officers. The Mexican-born victims were allegedly brought to Canada and forced to work at hotels by a cleaning company that collected almost all of the victims’ paychecks.
The victims paid the alleged traffickers large sums of cash to get to Canada and once here were forced to live in what police described as “squalid conditions.” Police say the investigation is still ongoing and that charges are expected to be laid in the future. Barrie Police Chief Kimberley Greenwood, in a press conference on Monday, said that the discovery of the labour human trafficking victims in her town was “very disturbing.”
Police described labour human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, harbouring of persons for the exploitation of forced labour.” Greenwood added it's “inconceivable this was taking place in our community.”
The police operation was a collaborative one, with the OPP, Barrie Police Services and the Canadian Border Agencies all playing parts. The investigation began in 2018 when the groups were tipped off that the victims were being trafficked by a Barrie cleaning company. OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum said that the men were brought to Canada under the guise of education, and were promised work visas and permanent residency. Police say that the men were coached by the trafficker about what to say when they they entered the country and once they arrived in Barrie and Wasaga Beach.
Then they were put to work cleaning up after tourists.
“The victims were transported daily, at a given time, to work at as a cleaner at a hotel and vacation properties located in central and eastern Ontario,” said Barnum. “They were charged a series of fees for lodging, transportation to and from work, and many other fees along the way, the list goes on and on. The traffickers controlled their pay.”
“After paying the various fees, workers would be left with minimal compensation. Sometimes less than $50 a month.”
Photos shared by authorities of the “lodging” provided to the men show foam mattresses laid on a floor in a run down basement with beds only a few feet apart. Barnum said that one of the victims told an investigator after the rescue that he “went to sleep a slave, but I woke up today a free man.”
While details on the company conducting the trafficking were sparse in the press conference, Barnum did say it was run by two people out of Barrie. In total the operation saw 12 warrants carried out, six for residential homes and six for vehicles, the OPP says the operation took the cooperation of approximately 250 police officers and support staff.
At the moment, police say they have “no reason to believe” that the hotels where the men worked had any idea these people were modern day slaves.
Over the duration of the press conference, both Barnum and Greenwood repeated that the men rescued were victims and treated as such. After freeing them from the locations, the 43 men were transported to a victims assistant centre were given “a hot shower, food, fresh clothing, and given a medical assessment before law enforcement interviews happened.” Since being freed, Greenwood stated that “all the victims have been offered employment and accommodations at a local resort.”
Barnum meanwhile was adamant to point out that these men should not be viewed as having done anything wrong other than wanting a better life.
“These people did nothing wrong, they came to Canada legally in their minds,” said Barnum. “They came here seeking work, to further their education, and to hopefully one day receive permanent residency.”
“They are true victims in every sense of the word.”
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