Project Maple Leaf aims to fight human trafficking across Ontario

Project Maple Leaf was officially launched at select OnRoutes across Ontario, including Napanee's. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.

Adam Prudhomme

Napanee’s Hwy 401 OnRoute was one of several highway rest stops across the province to help officially launch Project Maple Leaf, a new initiative dedicated to fight against human trafficking.

Launched on July 30, International Day to End Trafficking in Human, the new campaign features digital ads on the screens at OnRoutes across the province.

“They are non objectified ads with a message of hope that ask for our heads to be up, our eyes open and phones ready to make a call for someone who needs our help,” said Joyce Marshall, who was serving as Courage for Freedom’s ambassador for the Napanee OnRoute location.

The ads feature a 16-year-old survivor of human trafficking, sharing her story and offering a message of hope to those just like her. It calls on anyone who sees someone who appears to be a victim of forced prostitution or forced labour to call a newly launched hotline, 1-833-900-1010. They encourage people to program that number into their phones now and to have it ready in the event they see something of concern.

A growing problem, experts estimate 66 per cent of human trafficking in Canada originates in Ontario. They can start in small ‘feeder’ communities such as Napanee, which has close access to the 401. Victims, sometimes barely in their teens, are often exploited into a situation, through black mail or threat of harm to them or their family. They’re often left with the impression they have nowhere to turn. Victims are targeted from all walks of life, with 72 per cent being 24-years-of-age or younger, while 68 per cent are 18 and younger. Though females are more common, boys and men can also be victims.

Part of the goal of Project Maple Leaf is to help spread the word that help is available.

“Today is our collective chance to stand against human trafficking,” said Bill Daverne, speaking on behalf of Hastings Lennox and Addington MPP Darryl Kramp. “It is a worldwide problem but it’s right in our backyard. We can’t think of it as something somewhere else. It’s our problem and we must raise awareness to stop this evil.”

Representatives from the Women’s Institute, Morningstar Mission, Greater Napanee town council, local MPPs, the OPP and Hastings, Prince Edward County, Lennox and Addington victim services were among those gathered to help launch the new campaign, which replaced the previous Project OnRoute.

Kaitlyn Ouimette of victim services spoke on behalf of what they offer to those in need.

“We really get to know these individuals as human beings and survivors of their own story,” said Ouimette. “We really try to work with them to get them back on their feet and make sure their journey to healing is a positive one. Whenever they do feel comfortable, we do get police involved and get those investigations rolling but we never pressure them to give statements when they’re not ready.”

For some victims, a phone call placed on their behalf from a concerned stranger could be the catalyst that helps get them out of a horrific situation. With Project Maple Leaf, that project wide network is now in place.

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