Two officers walk along a platform.

Between the Lines podcast – Knowing the signs to help stop human trafficking

Human trafficking is happening all around us and can occur on transit networks. Between the Lines speaks with two members of Metrolinx’s investigations team about how both employees and customers can help potential victims.

Metrolinx is supporting the Province’s anti-human trafficking strategy as part of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

That’s why this week on Between the Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast, host Matt Llewellyn speaks with Jessica Langley and Randy Cowan from Metrolinx’s Customer Protective Services team.

With 17 years of experience, Langley explains the transit agency’s  anti-human trafficking strategy and the red flags everyone can be on the lookout for.

Cowan talks about his experience as a police detective for decades and how he was part of the very first successful case of human trafficking under the Criminal Code in Canada.

Stay tuned – and thank you! Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast

Thank you to all of our thousands of listeners who have joined us so far. The Between The Lines team will be taking a short break over the summer, but we will be back. We want to hear from you! What topics should we focus on? What Metrolinx projects do you want to learn more about? What are you liking about the podcast? What would you improve? Send us your thoughts: Have a great summer. Stay tuned… Host: Matt Llewellyn (@mattrolinx) Producer/Social: James Wattie (@jameswattie) Learn more at Credits: Gregory David / Shifting Out / courtesy of — Send in a voice message:
  1. Stay tuned – and thank you!
  2. Episode 21 – Top 5 reasons customers get in touch with GO Transit customer service
  3. Episode 20 – #AMAwithAMA – Terrifying near miss video, what are sun kinks and Pride Month begins
  4. Episode 19 – Walking The Entire Eglinton Crosstown Line
  5. Episode 18 – #AMAwithAMA – GO & UP service changes, rail safety and your transit questions answered

Metrolinx customers who see any of the warnings signs of human trafficking on Metrolinx’s transit system are encouraged to call customer protective services at 1-877-297-0642. 

Witness, victims, and survivors of human trafficking can also call the Canadian human trafficking hotline at 1-833-900-1010. 

Story by James Wattie, Metrolinx media relations advisor and Between the Lines podcast producer

Want to follow along while you listen? Here’s a full transcript for this episode of Between the Lines:

Between the Lines Podcast: Episode #11 – Full transcript

Matt Llewellyn

Hey, I’m Matt Llewellyn. Welcome to Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast.

Every week, we’re tackling some tough transit related topics and letting you hear from some of the brightest minds and leading global experts in the transportation field.

This week: knowing the signs to stop human trafficking.

We’re going to talk to you about how GO Transit is training its staff to spot the signs of human trafficking, intervene when possible and bring awareness to customers.

Matt Llewellyn

Jessica Langley is an investigator and supervisor with 17 years of experience with the customer protection services team at Metrolinx.

And Randy Cowan is the head of the investigations team at Metrolinx.

He was also the first police detective in Canada to ever successfully lay human trafficking charges.

Now, Randy, I want to ask you about that case and some of your experiences in a few minutes.

But first, Jessica, let’s start by explaining why Metrolinx is actually taking part in this anti-human trafficking initiative

Jessica Langley

As a transit company, we’re a place that people are drawn to.

We all play a role in combating human trafficking, and as a transit industry, we have the power of disruption to be able to stop the trafficking before it starts, by educating our employees, educating our customers and being able to be there to provide the safety that’s needed at the time.

Right now, we’re focusing on educating our employees about this issue and about what is happening in our society and specifically to pay attention to the red flags that might be present in situations where human trafficking is occurring, or where people may be at risk of being exploited by potential traffickers.

Matt Llewellyn

What does it look like, then? I mean, you talk about the signs there, but what would that actually look like to customers, for example?

Jessica Langley

Our passengers and employees may see signs of control.

That’s one of the red flags that we teach, and we’re trying to raise awareness about. To see if somebody is in control of their own movements, the decisions that they’re making, their access to their own ID and money to purchase tickets.

If they have control over the transit routes that they’re traveling and if they knew who they’re traveling with at the time.

We might also talk about signs of vulnerability; of a person that might be at risk of being exploited.

Those that are at increased risk include women and young girls.

Our youth are particularly targeted in these situations. Those that are in situations where poverty is a factor can have a major impact on their vulnerability.

Nearly 50% of the reported survivors are Indigenous women and girls here in Canada.

Although anybody can be affected by human trafficking, by knowing some of the certain aspects that increase a person’s risk of vulnerability, we can be on the lookout a lot more.

Matt Llewellyn

There was a particular stat when I was doing research for the province’s anti-human trafficking initiative that really stood out to me.

Special constables on GO Transit had intervened approximately two dozen times in cases where they suspected that human trafficking might be a factor.

There was one story in particular about a woman who was on her way to Niagara.

Can you take us through a little bit, if you could, about what was happening and how important that intervention in this particular case might have been?

Jessica Langley

Yeah, the case and the example of the woman that was heading towards Niagara Falls is a great example of that power of disruption that our staff and customers can hold.

We had a customer who was traveling to go meet a person that she had met online about six months prior.

She didn’t know much about this person, but had finally made arrangements to leave her home.

Nobody knew where she was going, so she was completely unsupervised.

This person had developed a relationship with her and had promised her a future. Music or music producing. Something that she just fell in love with.

She was going out and going to go meet this person.

No idea where exactly where she was going or who she was going to meet up with.

When our staff members saw this and saw the risk of what may come, they were able to make a call to our special constables.

Where our special constable came and saw that there was an opportunity to assist her, help get her back to her home and make sure that the appropriate support people were notified of the risk that was happening here.

Matt Llewellyn

It sounds like in that particular case, and I don’t want to use this phrase too lightly, but it sounds like that maybe not that they saved her life, but they certainly had a positive impact on what happened to her that day.

Jessica Langley

Absolutely. It’s one of those really hard situations to say what could have happened if they didn’t intervene? They might have saved her from a lot of harm that was going to come.

Matt Llewellyn

And I guess that story really highlights for me why the understanding the risk factors or the warning signs is so important because for staff and for customers too, it really does seem like they could make a difference in a really powerful way.

Jessica Langley

It absolutely does. With the amount of employees that we have and our customers that are traveling on our system, having our eyes and ears open to the red flags, we can be a complete disruptive force to combat human trafficking.


Matt Llewellyn

Randy, you were police detective in Peel Region for a few decades, at one point heading up the vice team, and were part of the team that brought forward the first case of human trafficking under the Criminal Code here in Canada.

I want to start by asking you, what do you remember about that particular case?

Randy Cowan

I’d been working in the vice unit, heading up the vice unit, for probably about a year at that time and witnessing and dealing with the different types of victimization that that kind of crime brings.

And I had received a phone call from a Department of Justice individual or crime analyst that had asked me about, have I had the opportunity to look at and use and have any feedback regarding the human trafficking legislation.

So it wasn’t something I was familiar with.

So I went over it with this person and I said, that’s a very interesting piece of legislation that’s been enacted.

It’s enforced, nobody’s used it.

So the legislation actually lent itself to both international and domestic trafficking.

My issue in my department was the domestic trafficking interprovincial movement of victims across provincial lines.

So this legislation actually fit quite well into the control and victimization and carried a harsher penalty and was more impactful.

So I had a case of a girl named Roxanne and Roxanne was trafficked from Quebec, and she was brought into Ontario and she was working in the strip clubs.

And what had happened is it started off as a romantic relationship as it often does, and it turned into her owing him what he was referred to as a tab of $50,000.

In order for her to get out from the control and get her ID back and and away from the threats of violence, she would have to pay him $50,000 to get out of it.

So that $50,000 was made by him dropping her off at various strip clubs.

And she would have to perform extras and come up with a quota for the night.

So she’d be bringing in anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500 a night, doing extras in the in the VIP room, which is sex acts that are over above and beyond what’s advertised in the club.

Certainly not allowed at the time.

So she became so scared and and she was dealing with her mom, calling her mom back in Quebec and her mom steered or finally convinced her to go to the police and they’re put in touch  with my unit.

And we went and interviewed her and she was ready to get out, because she knew that once she hit the $50,000, it was going to be another $50,000, so she had no way out.

So once she provided the statement and the particulars we went and arrested the individual, found another girl that had another tab that Roxanne wasn’t aware of, and that person received quite a hefty sentence.

And we were able to reunite Roxanne back with her mom, which was important.

Matt Llewellyn

I think you touched on something that’s really interesting there.

When a lot of people hear the phrase human trafficking or sex trafficking, I think it paints this picture in their mind of, I think, what would be considered international human trafficking as opposed to these types of things happening in their region and in their communities.

This type of inter-provincial human trafficking, as you call it.

I want to know from your perspective and your experience, how much more prevalent or significant do you think that type of inter-provincial human trafficking is compared to, say, international human trafficking?

Randy Cowan

Well, in dealing with my own department and other agencies around the province, we weren’t seeing a lot of the international.

You would in some sort of farm working, et cetera.

But the international trafficking was not what was prevalent in our backyard.

However, from we were having an influx of of young victims from Nova Scotia coming over, and they’re being run by an intergenerational or multi-generational gang of traffickers that, you know, their grandfathers were traffickers, their fathers and asubsequently them.

There’s been documentation written about these individuals and they would bring girls through a corridor on the 401.

And they would come down and they would stop in Bellville and stop in Toronto. They would stop in Mississauga. They’d head down to Niagara, they are over in Kitchener.

And there was this route that they would take and we’d find them at the regular hotels and things like that.

And for the untrained eye, or if you didn’t have the awareness that Jessica was referring to, you would think that this is a domestic relationship, maybe there’s an age gap, but you would say this is a domestic relationship two young people making their way.

But when you start to ask some questions and see some things like where’s your passport? He carries my passport. why don’t you have any cash on you? Because he’s got, you know, he’s got the cash. Does he always carry the cash?

Some of the common themes we find is, well, I give him my money because I’m saving, we’re saving for a condo. We’re going to go get a condo together or we’re getting married.

And the promises and the luring aspect of it would come through because the victim truly believes that that’s the truth.

So they don’t have any problem telling you that. There is a different story when you’re talking to the offenders.

Jessica Langley

And the most recent reports are indicating that 84-85% of survivors of human trafficking are Canadian citizens. The most prevalent place is here in Toronto.

Matt Llewellyn

I guess my next question really is how do these victims end up in this situation? I know we’ve talked a little bit about the control and why it is that they stay in these situations or fear getting out of them.

But is there really a common thread that links how it is that these victims stay in these situations for so long?

Randy Cowan

So in my experience, the number one factor in the victimization is the self-esteem issue.

So you’re talking about mostly marginalized victims that have had a tough time.

So foster children, they are, you know, often don’t have a home life to speak of or one that they’re miserable in. They’re looking for something else.

You know, speaking of the transit system and how this fits in it, quite often you’ll find traffickers will target the transit hub, such as Union Station, and they will conduct surveillance.

And what they’re looking for is they’re looking for that young, vulnerable person getting off the train or the bus with luggage, not knowing where they’re going, etc.

And it happened so fast. Once they identify a person like that, they will approach them and they’ll say, Hey, it looks like you’re new to the area, you know, do you want to get something to eat?

You know, can I get you directions?

They offer whatever assistance they think that person needs. And quite often, that’s food, shelter, you know, just somebody friendly to trust.

They become that trusted person and then they become their everything.

And that’s the luring process.

Matt Llewellyn

So, it really can be just as easy as someone sitting at Union Station, seeing someone who looks potentially a little lost, maybe has a bag and then approaching them and really just offering them something as simple as a McDonald’s meal.

Randy Cowan

It sounds unbelievable, but a common thread when we were dealing with the younger victims was ‘he took me for lunch at McDonald’s and he got my nails done’.

hat would happen when you’d rescue a person from human trafficking, you took away their support. It’s a negative support. Absolutely.

But it was their support, so my team would work hard at becoming their support.

And it was a 24-7 commitment that you had to be on call with these victims to sort of cater to their needs.

Matt Llewellyn

Was it those insights and that level of experience with things around, for example, public transit and transit hubs in particular, about why you wanted to help the provincial overall provincial strategy and why you wanted to really champion this initiative here at Metrolinx and bring awareness about human trafficking not only to staff and to provide that training, but also to bring that level of awareness to customers?

Randy Cowan

It’s definitely why I’m passionate about it. And I see an opportunity where I can help and learn some experience.

And then, you know, joining forces with with Jessica, who also has a passion for this topic. It’s about the greater vulnerable population that does travel on our system.

And this is just one piece of it. There’s luring, there’s missing children and runaways.We need to be aware of all of that and all through my career, you know, there was an emphasis by a lot of officers to apprehend and mine was more victim related.

It’s fine to apprehend.

But what happens after you’ve apprehended? What happens with the victim? This is a good opportunity to kind of combine those passions.

Matt Llewellyn

I put this next question to both of you.

We’ve talked a lot so far about how, for example, transit hubs and stations can play a role in potential victims ending up in one of these situations.

But I imagine there’s also a flip side and a really important one, in terms of transit can also be an escape for these victims. It’s an exit strategy.

And so I just wonder if that is true, if you can talk to us a little bit about why that’s important, and sort of the role that staff can play in that.

Jessica Langley

Yeah, when people are caught in these situations where they’re being exploited, they don’t have a lot of control over their options or access to money or identification.

Often, public transit can be the first place that they can get to, to try to escape the situation that they are in.

There was a study conducted in regards to transportation and human trafficking, which provided us with some interesting statistics.

It told us that 33% of the respondents in that study use public transportation as a means to escape the trafficking situation.

As well, the amount of people that describe public transportation being used in some fashion in regards to their trafficking situation, through trains, short term trains, long term trains, bus travel.

It was close to 50% of them that described having transit as a part of the process.

So with 26% being busses specifically.

So it definitely plays a role in their ability to access a safe exit.

Randy Cowan

The crucial point when it comes to transit and what can we do… is the difference that could be made by front line employee of Metrolinx identifying and calling in the right resources at the right time is life changing.

And that’s why it’s so important, you know, not that it’s prevalent or invasive onto the system, but if you do see someone, the effect that you can have on someone’s life is immeasurable.

So that’s why it’s so important that everybody be on the lookout for victimization such as this.

Matt Llewellyn

What would you say to parents who are potentially hearing this and wondering about some of the signs and what they could potentially do?

Randy Cowan

A young person who goes missing on multiple occasions is highly likely to be involved in a human trafficking or sex trade issue.

So if you are a parent and your child is is leaving home and existing or surviving for multiple days without any assistance from the parent, then you have to start asking yourself some tough questions like where’s the money coming from?

Who is taking care of this person or my child? And you know, the important thing for parents is to know your children’s contacts.

What are they doing? What is their activity? Who are they with?

It’s traditional parenting, right? It’s being aware of being present and ensure that your child has access or the ability to maintain their self-esteem.

As I say, a person with high self-esteem is not a target for a human trafficker.

You can’t break through that psychology. You have to you have to need and want something that you’re not getting somewhere else.

So it’s, you know, make sure that you provide that self-esteem for your children.

Jessica Langley

There’s a lot of resources out and available for parents, and I really encourage people to explore and educate themselves.

Matt Llewellyn

I think the other part of this is that there might be people who listen to this or who perhaps are aware of the warning signs, the red flags as we call them, and they know they’re witnessing something that’s going on.

They know that something’s just not quite right.

But they think to themselves, I just don’t want to put myself in someone else’s business.

Or I don’t really know what this is and so I’m hesitant to pick up the phone and make a call in case it’s not.

I guess my question is, what would you say to somebody who potentially is seeing this and is feeling this and isn’t sure if it’s the right thing to do to make that call?

Randy Cowan

Direct intervention is not suggested.

These are very violent, often armed, individuals that have a lot to lose.

So you don’t want as a customer getting between that.

But I tell you a lot of reports we get are from overheard conversations on the train and the bus.

Something’s not right, this conversation doesn’t sound right, the ages doesn’t seem right. It’s inappropriate.

And that report, even though they don’t have the name or identity of this person, maybe they can get a license plate of somebody leaving the station.

The investigations team here at Metrolinx is top notch and we can take it from there, but it is encouraging if passengers just report suspicious…

and I’d rather have 1,000 reports of that are unfounded than to let one go.

Matt Llewellyn

Randi and Jessica, thank you both so much for your time today. I really do appreciate it.

Metrolinx customers who do see any warning signs of human trafficking or just anything that they don’t think is right on our transit system, whether that’s GO Transit or Up Express are encouraged to call customer protective services that phone number 1-877-297-0642.

Witnesses, victims and survivors of human trafficking can also call the Canadian Human Trafficking hotline. The number 1-833-900-1010.

Matt Llewellyn

And that’s Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast for this week, thanks so much for your time.

We know there’s a lot to choose out there and we do appreciate you checking us out.

Now, do you have some questions that you’d like answered on a transit topic that you might want more information about? Send us an e-mail

Also, if you do like what you’re hearing be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

We’ll be back in a few weeks time. Until then, thanks again.

James Wattie is our producer. He also edits each episode and handles our social.

And I’m Matt Llewellyn.