Toronto chaplain helps fight human trafficking at Canada’s busiest airport

08 November 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

After celebrating daily Mass at Terminals 1 and 3, airport chaplain Father John Mullins likes to walk around Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, praying the rosary and keeping a watchful eye.

He looks for a nervous young woman who is travelling alone, looking constantly at two different cellphones. He pays attention to older men who might be dragging distressed young girls through different stores, buying expensive gifts and maybe even lingerie.

They are all clues to human trafficking, a crime that is likened to modern-day slavery. By definition, it is the illegal recruitment, transportation and harbouring of people, typically for the purpose of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation.

Father John Mullins

As an airport chaplain, Mullins said he feels a special responsibility to help combat what is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.

There are about 50 million people that go through Pearson airport each year and 49,000 staff who work at the airport regularly. By the very nature of its business, the airport becomes a hub for human trafficking, especially on the international scene.

“I’m only a chaplain, but if I can be part of the awareness campaign, I’d like to do that,” he said. “As Catholics, our utmost priority is to protect the poor and vulnerable. And in the airport, these victims are who I’m looking to protect.”

Mullins has been working as a liaison for the airport’s security and operations teams to bring more awareness among airport staff about human trafficking. He is one piece of a larger effort in the Peel region to build a united front against human trafficking.

“It’s hiding in plain sight and I just try to be vigilant about it,” said Mullins. “The chapel is a refuge for a lot of people and if someone is looking nervous, you try to be aware of that. Or if some man is dragging a younger woman through LaSenza (lingerie store)… these are the kinds of things we’re trying to be careful with.”

According to Peel Regional Police, the Greater Toronto Area accounts for about 60 per cent of all reported human trafficking activity in the country. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of offences were reported in Ontario.

Mullins is a member of the Peel Human Trafficking Service Providers Committee, headed by Const. Joy Brown of the Peel Regional Police and made up of 40 members who represent community members and service providers. The committee was formed in November 2015 as a response to “develop a regional protocol and create a care path of services for victims,” said Brown.

The members include the airport chaplaincy, the Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board, Conseil Scolaire de district catholique Centre and Catholic Family Services of Peel-Durham.

“In order to be able to provide resources and that wrap around approach to resources, it’s important that we’re all on the same page and that we know our resources in and out of the region,” said Brown, a community mobilization officer with Peel Police.

Tilia Cruz

Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board is tackling the issue on another front for the Peel committee.

Two-thirds of police-reported incidents of human trafficking involve Canadians operating inside our borders, so superintendent Tilia Cruz wants the board’s educators to be on the frontlines of identifying potential victims in schools.

“This is so they understand that this is not out there in some nebulous world but it’s actually within their own community,” said Cruz. “We give them statistics on what the rate is and how it’s increased in the last little while. We also give them cases and whatever information the police can provide to keep us informed.”

Since becoming a member three years ago, the board has facilitated workshops for school teachers, principals, counsellors, chaplains and other staff. They have also co-ordinated school visits where the police officers speak to student assemblies about this issue.

“Part of the presentation is about understanding what changes you would see in someone’s personality or what other signs you should be looking for,” said Cruz. “Social media is the biggest challenge in our work to be vigilant. It’s such a huge piece.”

Cruz said educators and school staff are key to the strategy since 90 per cent of the victims of sex trafficking in Canada are teenage girls, with the average recruitment age being 13.

“As a Catholic school board, we sit on a number of committees because we are always mindful of making sure that the Catholic voice is brought into the community,” said Cruz. “Our faith grounds us and that voice at the table is really important.”